(Child) poverty: efficiency versus self-professed compassion?

Dr Bryce Wilkinson
Insights Newsletter
14 November, 2014

William Voegeli, a senior editor at Clarement Review of Books, recently gave a speechThe case against liberal compassion, at Michigan's Hillsdale College that raised the question of why many (US) liberals appear to feel that no matter how much governments are spending to alleviate and prevent poverty, the latest amount is always shamefully inadequate. 

He put US federal spending on welfare, including health and education, in 2013 at 2/3rds of all federal outlays and 14% of GDP. In real per capita terms it was 254% higher in 2013 than in 1977, yet there was no correspondingly dramatic reduction in poverty. 

In New Zealand, central government spending on social welfare and assistance, including health and education was 74% of central government current spending, excluding on finance costs and capital consumption, in the year ended March 2013–according to Statistics New Zealand figures. This represented 23% of GDP. In real per capita terms, it was up by of the order of 160% between fiscal years ended 1978 and 2014 based on Treasury's long-term fiscal series, although the comparison is only indicative given the change in accounting systems between those years.  

An alternative interpretation to the liberal assertion that the current level of spending is insufficiently generous is that it is insufficiently effective. Yet Voegeli quotes a disturbing number of US liberals including President Obama, Franklin Roosevelt, Tip O'Neil and Paul Krugman who have variously portrayed such debates as a battle between empathy and compassion on the one hand and cold-bloodedness, mean spiritedness, or worse, on the other.

Voegeli observes that those who care the most about alleviating poverty should be the most passionate about opposing wasteful government spending. After all, every taxpayer dollar squandered in some way is a dollar that could have been used to help the poor. Yet, much welfare spending is "showered on people who aren't poor" and many government spending programmes are not systematically, rigorously and regularly reviewed in value-for-money terms given their politically-entrenched nature.

So Voegeli puzzles over why US liberals are not leading the charge against waste in government. He suggests that too many of them are prone to feeling good about good intentions rather than worrying enough the likely efficacy of proposed remedies, taking political and bureaucratic limitations and unintended consequences into account.

Yet ineffectual remedies represent a failure to help the object of one's self-professed compassion. Compassion without efficiency puts compassion in question.

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