According to a July 26, 2014 article in the New York Times, median household net worth in the U.S. has fallen by an astonishing and very disturbing 36 percent since 2003. Keep that figure in mind as you ponder this.

Conservatives and liberals have been at odds for most of a century now as to what to do about poverty. Conservatives believe in government payments to the poor only as a last resort, insisting that those in poverty have a duty to first do all they can to help themselves. Liberals, on the other hand, believe that that asks too much and are thus constantly seeking to expand government programs for the poor.

Since at least 1965, liberals have by and large been winning the argument. The amount of money expended by the federal government on anti-poverty programs since 1965 is almost exactly equal to the national debt, currently approaching $17 trillion. (Yet the poverty rate in the United States in 2014 stands essentially unchanged from the rate in 1965.)

For my money, the most cogent anti-poverty advice came from Benjamin Franklin. He said,

“I am for doing good to the poor but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I traveled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.”

I have no idea how Ben Franklin’s contemporaries responded to that statement. I can be certain, though, that he would be demagogued out of the room today – even as the national wealth necessary to fund anti-poverty programs in the country he helped found is fast slipping away.

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