01/12/2014 02:55 pm ET Updated Mar 14, 2014

Handouts Aren't Enough

Conservatives, for the first time in quite a while, are beginning to take the issue of poverty seriously. Tea Party figures like Marco Rubio and Mike Lee have given thoughtful speeches on income mobility. Liberals, surprisingly, don't like a lot of what they see. Writing in the Washington Post, Washington Monthly's Ryan Cooper (who has also done work for R Street) argues that "a keystone part of any anti-poverty agenda must be the transfer of resources... without that it will accomplish little." I think he's wrong about this. While some sort of "resource transfer" should be part of an anti-poverty agenda, it's not the only (or even the most) important thing.

Let's start with the resource transfer part. Yes, it's important. Like a lot of conservatives who care about poverty, I think that the best way to deal with the money problems is to give more money directly to the poor. Such a system could take the form of a "negative income tax" or "basic guaranteed income" that would replace almost all current social assistance with a simple cash grant. Such a program could be more generous than the existing welfare state and, if it were provided to absolutely everybody, would erase all of the work disincentives implicit in the existing programs. Since it would be very simple to administer -- every adult would get the same grant -- it would also reduce the size, scope and intrusiveness of government.

But such a program, no matter how worthy, simply isn't enough. The state does a variety of things that tend to hurt many of its poorest residents and eliminating them can do a lot to help the poor. Two stand out.

First, except in cases where there's a obvious health and safety risk (open heart surgery, civil engineering) the government should stop standing in the way of individuals' desire to pursue their chose careers. Professional licensing, in its current form, creates an enormous burden on the people who most need opportunities for upward mobility. The Institute for Justice, a fantastic libertarian public interest law firm, finds that one out of three workers needs some sort of license and that the typical license requires hundreds of dollars in fees, nine months of training and an exam. For people striving to make it, this is a massive and unfair barrier. Dismantling the great bulk of the licensing regime -- inspections and certifications could still assure health and safety -- would likely do more to help the poor than any new job training program liberals might dream up.

Second, the government needs to make it easier for people who have done prison or jail time to return to society. An enormous percentage of lower-income males have done time in correctional facilities and ex-offenders have a very difficult time finding work when they're released. While spending on programs to reintegrate them into society has increased in recent years, governments still don't do nearly enough to solve a problem its own laws have played a major role in creating. The fact that criminal records follow many people around for life means that a youthful mistake can seriously impede one's life opportunities. People can change over time and those who commit less serious offenses should have a pathway -- albeit an arduous one -- to having reasonably minor offenses "spent" after a period of exemplary behavior. While I think it would be a mistake to outright legalize most currently banned drugs, likewise, mere possession of small quantities of most drugs should be treated more as a public health issue than a crime. Other laws that create new crimes should also be looked at seriously and, in many cases, repealed.

Assistance to the poor is a worthy and important function of the state. Net increases direct aid to the poor may even be justified particularly if they can be offset by cuts to spending that benefits the wealthy. But government does a lot to stand in the way of the poor. Getting the government out of the way is at least as important as resource transfer.