The Big Idea

The Conservative War on Poverty

Bring it on.

We’re all in this together

Since Hurricane Katrina exposed the ghetto poor of New Orleans to national view, stirring a national conscience that has been asleep for many years, the federal government has begun to re-engage with the problem of urban poverty. George W. Bush has made a strong rhetorical and financial commitment to rebuild the city in a way that does not re-create what was there before. The president mentioned a few specific anti-poverty ideas in his speech from Jackson Square: vouchers for job training and education, tax-abated Opportunity Zones, and a Homestead Act intended to help poor people own their own houses.

The reaction from liberals to Bush’s proposed War on Bayou Poverty has been outrage that Republicans would take advantage of the tragedy to advance their ideological agenda. Democratic leaders are upset about the suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act, sacred to unions, which requires the federal government to pay prevailing wages to workers. They’ve also denounced Bush’s proposal to provide school vouchers to students displaced by the storm and the suggestion that Karl Rove might run the rebuilding show.

This is precisely the wrong response. Liberals, who have failed to muster any kind of social consensus for a major federal assault on poverty since LBJ’s day, should welcome conservatives as converts to the cause. They should hold back on their specific objections—some of which are valid, some of which are not—and let Bush have his way with the reconstruction. Making New Orleans a test site for conservative social policy ideas could shake out any number of ways politically. But all of us have a stake in an experiment that tells us whether conservative anti-poverty ideas, uh, work. If the conservative war on poverty succeeds, even in partial fashion, we will all be better for its success. And if it fails, we will have learned something important about how not to fight poverty.

Not everyone on the right is so keen about a new federal attack on poverty (for a quick taxonomy of conservative views on the issue, click here). But the activist Republicans who have been ascendant since the disaster are ready for action. What are the radical proposals they want to implement in New Orleans? The first place I looked for them was on Newt Gingrich’s Web site, No luck. (Though at the top of the home page, you will find a 20-slide Powerpoint presentation that provides additional evidence—were any needed—of the former speaker’s clinical megalomania.) Nor does “I-care-about-poor-people” conservative Jack Kemp have much to offer beyond inspiration and admonitions not to sweat the deficit spending.

There’s more detail in a new position paper from the Heritage Foundation, which recommends a slew of policies including a zero capital gains rate for investment in the disaster zone, suspension of EPA regulations, rental vouchers in place of government-provided housing, emergency health care accounts instead of expanded Medicaid, and $5,000-per-pupil school vouchers for private, public, or charter schools. The Department of Education has since suggested that the vouchers it wants to offer displaced students could be worth as much as $7,500—which would address a major flaw in Bush’s previous versions of school choice, namely that the vouchers wouldn’t have been worth enough to cover the tuition anywhere other than parochial schools.

Not mentioned in the Heritage paper, but clearly applicable, is the stalled GOP proposal for second-round welfare reform: a requirement that recipients work 40 hours a week to qualify for benefits. Let’s try that in New Orleans, too. Let Congress go ahead and suspend affirmative action requirements for contractors and environmental regulations for builders. Let Republicans bar victims from suing volunteers for damages, and give them a flat tax. In the category of Onion headlines that aren’t a joke, Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., want to suspend the estate tax for people killed in Hurricane Katrina. The only problem: They can’t find a corpse—that is, any victim whose estate would owe any tax. But let Republicans go ahead and kill the death tax there if it makes them feel better. Heck, let them privatize Social Security for poor blacks in New Orleans (who Bush says get a raw deal under the current system).

Unfortunately, the conservative war on poverty in New Orleans probably won’t take place in any concerted way, because Republicans and Democrats are equally terrified about what might happen. Conservatives don’t necessarily want their panaceas tried out, for fear their utopia might not be so dreamy after all. Liberals don’t want conservative ideas tested for a different reason. They’re afraid that some of them might actually work.