Each year, the combined state and federal governments of the United States spend roughly $1 trillion fighting poverty. And nothing happens.

But that doesn’t seem to matter. Even as government welfare spending exceeds our entire national defense budget, the welfare argument spun by the Left has remained as consistent as the poverty rate.

And that perennial argument goes something like this: Liberals want to give the poor a safety net, and conservatives want to take that net away so the wealthy can pay less in taxes.

It does not matter that this argument is simplistic and downright inaccurate. In the world of Twitter and Facebook, where the uninformed masses fume poetic on their outrage over this or that topic, the Liberal welfare argument is an easy story that doesn’t require much nuanced thought, so it continues to resonate.

The tragedy, however, is not that conservatives may be losing a rhetorical war against the Left to win over the votes of America’s poor.

No, the real tragedy is that the people who are actually on welfare are suffering because of it.

“We’re spending more and more money every year, and getting fewer and fewer results,” said Phil Harvey, chief spokesman with the DKT Liberty Project and co-author of “The Human Cost of Welfare.”

“We’re spending more and more money every year, and getting fewer and fewer results”
“But as bad as that is for taxpayers and the fiscal balance sheet of the U.S. government,” Harvey said, “the real problem is that it’s bad for the people living in poverty, because not only are we spending money and not helping them, in many cases we may actually be making their situation worse.”

Speaking alongside his co-author Lisa Conyers at the Cato Institute last week, Harvey noted the layers of problems facing the current welfare system: high cost, small results, disillusionment for large swaths of America, just to name a few.

And if anything is to change, Harvey suggested, then conservatives need to jump ahead of the Left by openly addressing the dual nature of welfare recipients. Just as Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) disavowed referring to welfare recipients as “takers versus makers,” so too must the conservative movement recognize that welfare recipients come in two categories.

The first category includes those who use the program for its intended purpose as a safety net.

“The safety net for some people works the way it’s supposed to,” Harvey said. “You lose a job, you go on food stamps for a couple of months, and then you go off. And that’s a system that works.”

But the current form of welfare, Harvey argued, completely neglects the second category of recipients, and those are the people who are “trapped” in welfare, so to speak. In other words, trapped in poverty.

“For these people, many are afraid of reaching what we call the ‘benefits cliff,’” Harvey said. “That is the point when they earn too much money, so they’re going to lose their benefits, perhaps unpredictably, and perhaps suddenly. The rules are there, but they are very complicated and hard to figure out.”

“The real problem is that it’s bad for the people living in poverty”

Shedding light on this would be a key shift in conservative rhetoric, Harvey said. The new conservative welfare conversation would no longer be about malicious “welfare queens” or con artists scamming the system, because these people are outliers in a broad system that also includes struggling single mothers, laid-off industrial workers and the working poor. Rather, the conversation would be about encouraging upward mobility for those who are trapped in a system that gives them enough resources to put food on the table but little else.

“I don’t think we want to imply that welfare is a trap for everyone,” Harvey said. “But we now see more and more people on welfare for three, four, five, six years. And that is the population that we are particularly concerned about, because that population of people are, frankly, miserable.”

The first step forward, then, is an open recognition of the true motivations and necessities of America’s poor.

Even President Franklin Roosevelt, the godfather of the U.S. welfare state, understood the underlying risks of setting up a government relief program. Noting that welfare was a “narcotic,” Roosevelt worried that a program that fostered long-term dependence on the government would be “a subtle destroyer of the human spirit, undermining dignity and self-respect. We must preserve self-respect, self-reliance and determination.”

As uneasy as it can be to admit, conservatives need to heed the call of that old Democrat and re-frame the conversation, not merely to win elections, but so that dignity, self-respect and determination for poor Americans will no longer remain on the chopping floor.