I'd like to congratulate my co-panelists for a good discussion on how the Right can move forward on poverty issues: Elise Amyx of IFWE, Brandon Smith of Fed Soc, and Brad Wassink of AEI.
I have excerpted parts of my comments below. I didn't give them verbatim, but this should paint a decent enough picture of what I think the role of policymakers should be as we look to take on the root causes of cyclical poverty.
My primary area of interest is criminal justice. When discussing criminal justice reform, there are two key components to think about: “Front end” reforms deal with policing, alternatives to incarceration (like drug courts), and revisiting laws on the books. “Back end” reforms deal with early release, mental health support, and job training after incarceration. If you look at the reforms being discussed among policymakers today, they are concentrating primarily on back end reforms.bellum medicamenti delenda est
There is a lot of talk about “reentry programs,” like regularizing punishments for parole violations, reducing collateral consequences like housing and employment restrictions, and providing mental health assistance, all in effort to decrease recidivism. These ideas are particularly salient today because more than 10,000 people per week—and more than 650,000 per year—are released from jail or prison into society. A large number of these people will be concentrated in economically depressed neighborhoods with little or no infrastructure to support them—further burdening those areas with more unemployed people looking for work and seniors with no one to care for them.
These programs are important, but they don’t go far enough. None of the back-end solutions address the fundamental problem at the front end: The way in which the government treats the people hanging onto the lowest rung of society is a travesty across the board.
Yes, like your typical libertarian, I’m against drug prohibition for moral and philosophical reasons. But when talking about poverty and policy, it isn’t just about drugs and the right to do with your body what you choose: It’s about what the government is doing to people and how that might affect socio-economic outcomes.
The Drug War has led to antipathy between the police and many of the policed. Leaders within the criminal justice community have described an “Us versus Them” mentality that colors police interactions with the general public. Nowhere is this truer than in the impoverished areas of our country.
New York City’s ‘Stop and Frisk’ is another example of government harassment of young poor people—specifically minorities. These invasive frisks recovered only 8,000 guns over the course of 4 million stops since 2002. 8,000 guns sounds like a lot, but that’s about two tenths of one percent of stops that are, according to former Mayor Bloomberg, meant to find guns. 90% of stops involved no crime, outstanding warrant, or civil violation at all. So either the NYPD doesn’t know what they’re doing, or they were targeting minorities, especially young, poor ones—effectively negating their Fourth Amendment rights and alienating them from their own society.
This alienation doesn’t start with a child’s own treatment by the government. The White House recently invited the families of the incarcerated to an event with the characters from Sesame Street. The impetus was a new program to help provide emotional support for the 2 million children with parents who are incarcerated. I don’t blame the folks at Sesame Street at all for addressing this. But I find it cruel to host an event at the White House—the home and office of a man who, with a stroke of a pen, could reunite so many families of non-violent offenders currently in federal custody. Yet the president has used his pardon and clemency powers fewer times than any of his recent predecessors, Democrat or Republican.
And this brings me to my main point: when you have an educational system that is failing poor children, rendering them unable, or substantially less able, to compete in a global market economy; a legal system that treats them and their loved ones differently and unfairly in comparison to their richer national peers—and may have locked up one or more of their parents, siblings, or loved ones—the government is fundamentally mistreating its most vulnerable citizens and making it even harder for them to break out of poverty.
The back end criminal justice problems are crucial. Ex-offenders are coming out of prison to a still-recovering economy, at a likely disadvantage in education, and with the social stigma and legal limitations of being a felon—not to mention readjusting to life outside (to say nothing of the trauma inflicted by other prison conditions). Right on Crime, Justice Fellowship, and other organizations have led the way from the Right in easing the transition from incarceration back into society. Senators like Mike Lee and Rand Paul have become champions for post-incarceral reform in Congress.
But, on the front end, we cannot continue to alienate the poor, trap their children in bad public schools, incarcerate hundreds of thousands of Americans in a lost drug war, and really expect to alleviate poverty in any meaningful way. The threshold for which society says it’s appropriate to throw a human being in a cage must be much higher than it is if we want to help our least fortunate fellow citizens. Our current system is deplorable, and of apiece of a larger program that maintains a cycle of poverty even the most well-intentioned have trouble escaping.