4 Ways The War on Poverty Became a War on Poor People

How to Bring Wealth to America's Poor

More than a half century after LBJ declared his “War on Poverty,” government anti-poverty programs, however well-intentioned, continue to undermine the real growth of wealth in American communities. Libertarians are sometimes criticized for not “caring about the poor,” but using force to restrict poor people’s options isn’t a generous or righteous act. Attempts to help via state and local programs have enormous unintentional effects and disproportionate costs, effectively trapping individuals and families in inter-generational poverty. Below, I’ll explain these systemic catastrophes, and how the Libertarian Party of Georgia is fighting back.

The “Just-Us” System and the War on Drugs

What Government Does
When politicians promise to be “tough on crime” they distribute resources differently according to the wealth of a neighborhood. Street stops and traffic stops use police discretion and suspicion instead of the Constitutional standard of probable cause, to target individuals for search and arrest. Police and prosecutors are motivated to entrap, intimidate, arrest, and incarcerate ever more Georgians, for longer periods, for increasingly trivial crimes. Georgia, like the U.S. as a whole, arrests more people annually for marijuana possession than for murder, rape, robbery, and assault COMBINED

The cost of being arrested and detained can be huge, even if you aren’t convicted or the charges are dropped. If you don’t have the money to bail out, the State of Georgia generates a steady stream of revenue by overcharging for jail stays, court fees, probation costs, drug tests. Bail bond companies lobbied the state to increase bail amounts, and require bail more often for minor charges. If you can’t pay, you stay, and every day in jail increases your chances of re-arrest, re-incarceration, job loss, unpaid bills, and serious physical harm. All of these punishments are handed down, remember, before you’ve been tried – while you’re supposedly presumed innocent, the state can ruin your life and your family’s finances. 

Georgia is currently No 1. in the nation in number of persons under supervision, (in 17 is in prison/jail, on parole/probation), thousands of them for victimless crimes, mental illness, or addiction. Those earners and parents are absent from their homes and communities, and face serious government barriers when they seek employment, housing, educational opportunities, and custody of their children.

How LP Georgia Can Help 

The Libertarian Party of Georgia has been working with the Georgia Justice Reform Partnership to make changes to “pre-trial detention,” including requirements for cash bail for misdemeanor offenses. Atlanta and Athens have yielded to pressure and changed their policies. Bail bonds companies, among others, are lobbying The Georgia General Assembly to pass legislation (SB 164) to prevent local jurisdictions from reforming cash bail. We’ll continue the fight.

Similar success in major metropolitan areas has been realized with the decriminalization of simple possession of cannabis, or marijuana. In the state’s most populous areas, people are no longer going to jail for possessing a plant. Statewide decriminalization is a realizable goal and the Libertarian Party of Georgia works with the Peachtree chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) toward that eventuality. 

Broken Schools and Educational Inequity

What Government Does
With the promise of education for every child, the public school system locks kids into certain schools based on the zip code where they live, even when those schools are failing. Wealthy families always enjoy school choice: they choose private school, or pay $300K for a home in a great public school district. Poor parents are literally jailed for sending their kids to a better school than their zip code allows. Since school funding is tied to local property taxes and underfunded schools are in underfunded neighborhoods. 

Faced with crumbling facilities, criminalization in schools, and inadequate teaching, poor families beg for charter schools, voucher programs, or tax breaks to make school choice affordable for them. But public schools don’t answer to students or parents – they answer to the unions and bureaucrats who staff and fund them. So failing schools double down on more of what we know doesn’t work: more days in school, more hours per day, more high-stakes testing. 

How LP Georgia Can Help
Reforming educational opportunity in Georgia means giving power back to students and parents, regardless of income, to demand high quality teachers and innovative programming. Whether through public vouchers to attend the school that meets their needs, or tax-free Education Savings Accounts, or a proliferation of non-profit public charters, libertarians support more choices for parents on how their kids are educated. We will also fight to raise caps on participation and enrollment in charter schools, so parents don’t have to rely on a literal lottery to give their children a bright future. 

Zoning for Privilege and Destroying Affordable Housing

What Government Does
Cheap money from the state – under guises of renewal, revitalization, road construction, sports facilities, or other ‘public goods’ –  gives politicians the ability to buy out and bulldoze the poorest neighborhoods and forcibly relocate their residents. “Planning” by regulators results inevitably in corruption and waste: wealthy developers and campaign cronies get access to the most desirable land and lucrative ‘redevelopment’ contracts. Property taxes may be raised to remove the poorest residents, but are often later suspended to spur investment: another favor ‘planners’ can give away. Even if more affordable housing is later constructed, few former residents will be eligible to move back to their “improved” communities. Those displaced are likely to have occupied the lowest-rent and lowest-tax areas of the city, so the destruction of their homes creates a cycle of displacement and homelessness, as well as overcrowding, in other parts of the city and state. Zoning restrictions frequently mean higher housing costs, more cars on the road, and less affordable transportation options than the market would provide and customers would demand, if solutions were not made illegal.

How LP Georgia Can Help
The Libertarian Party of Georgia stands opposed to property taxes and government purchasing land, or encouraging, mandating, or restricting certain uses. We support innovative and efficient use of resources. We support ‘tiny house’ owners against unreasonable code laws. We assist low-income and longtime residents with appealing tax hikes that threaten their ability to keep their homes, and we WIN. We advocate for innovative construction that encourages walkability and promotes job creation and economic opportunity near residential communities. We oppose wasteful government spending on vanity projects that don’t improve experience on the ground.

Restrictive Business Licensing and Economic Exclusion

What the Government Does
When people achieve a certain level of success, they often turn to the state for protection from competition. Requiring a license or certification, or a certain level of training, before someone can practice a profession or craft is one way to keep others from entering your field and taking your customers.

Not only do these policies stifle innovation by imposing standards across the board, but they serve to keep people in poverty who want to start a business but can’t afford the overhead upfront. A food vendor without the right permit or an electrician with an out-of-state license is made into a criminal, not for his lack of training or skill but because he hasn’t paid the proper protection fees to the state.

If you’ve ever gone to a ‘shade tree mechanic,’ or let your mom cut your hair, or bought lemonade from a roadside stand, you understand implicitly that your individual choice of someone providing a service matters more than whether they have a state license, 2,000 hours of training, or have paid dues or fees. In trying to ‘protect’ the public from inferior private services, regulators have driven up the cost of every product, service, living space, medical treatment, job, and mode of transportation in every community. 

How LP Georgia Can Help

Georgia is ready for licensing reform and has shown small indicators of progress. Recently, laws have limited the ability of licensing boards to suspend individuals who’ve defaulted on a student loan, and have reduced some medical costs by accepting licenses from certain other states and for some “e-medicine” consulting services offered to Georgians. We are optimistic about offering ‘record restriction’ workshops to job-seekers with certain criminal records. The Libertarian Party of Georgia will continue to advocate for equal economic opportunity without special permission or discrimination, and to reduce the cost of starting and running a business in our state. 

*I’ve borrowed the framework from remarks by Michael Tanner’of Cato at FEECon2019, 5 Ways the Government Keeps People in Poverty, which I’ve adapted or state policy focus and priorities. Thank you, Dr. Tanner for your outstanding work, and for motivating me not just to think, but to write!

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