Despite its complexity and absence of empathy, math always has served as the arbiter of fact vs. opinion. But when the math itself comes into question, we are left to partisan interpretations — and that creates a polarizing situation. Such is the case in an exchange between a liberal Nobel Prize-winning economist and two respected conservative policy analysts.
A recent New York Times op-ed by Angus Deaton warns, "The U.S. can no longer hide from its deep poverty problem." He cites World Bank data showing evidence of U.S. poverty on par with Ethiopia and Pakistan.
Jamie Hall and Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, however, counter that those numbers are not true. They assert, "Debates about welfare in the United States often degenerate into a fiscal tug of war in which the left seeks to expand conventional welfare spending while the right seeks to shrink it. It is true that the welfare system is far larger and more costly than the public imagines. There is extensive waste and fraud throughout the system."
But there is one mathematical projection earning consensus from the likes of PolitiFact, the Heritage Foundation, Business Insider, U.S. News and the Weekly Standard: Entitlement spending is out of control, and within the next 20 years, the three major entitlements — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — along with interest on the national debt, will consume 100 percent of all tax revenue.
That fact demands that we move beyond politicized interpretation and get to real solutions, because if entitlements and debt consume all tax revenue, our stability and compassion as a nation are at risk. With no revenue left to debate over: nothing for defense, roads, education — or even the growing entitlements themselves — how can we continue to help anyone? And this dire prediction does not even factor in the 89 other means-tested assistance programs run by the federal government. I think we can agree on this: We have a problem.
It's been five decades since President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty. After $25 trillion spent on programs, the U.S. poverty rate has not changed much, and our nation is still home to about 43 million people living in poverty. We can use the next two decades to devise a plan, or we can continue the blame game and accept the consequences.
Honest bipartisan conversation would look something like this:
First, conservatives and liberals would admit to a spending addiction. This would place every option on the table for discussion.
For example, we should re-evaluate foreign and domestic aid policies. Both parties already concede we might rethink how we assist the poor, and there are indications that welfare reforms have worked. If politicians can stop worrying about who gets the credit and present accurate data, we can find solutions.
Second would be a walk in the shoes of the other side: If liberals really care about ending poverty — and I believe they do — they should be the most steadfast of budget hawks, ensuring not one dime that could help the poor be lost to fraud and growing bureaucracy. They should acknowledge that poverty ends — really ends — only when people become self-sufficient. Unless we return to the notion of welfare as temporary, there will be nothing left for those who are truly in need of long-term assistance.
Third, majority conservatives should demonstrate compassion by ending corporate welfare, balancing the budget, privatizing functions better left to the private sector and updating the tax code in a meaningful way.
If there were an easy fix, poverty would be fixed. Brookings Institute research shows that poverty is complex, with at least five major contributing causes: work rates, wages, family composition, education and immigration. Heritage Foundation adds criminal activity as a factor, as well as drug and alcohol abuse. But these layers of complexity do not justify Congress doing nothing. Rather, they demand action — progress must be made where it can be made — and within the next two decades.
As we confront social issues heading for a point of mathematical unsustainability, we must elect those united around the belief that we are capable of principled compromise and who will respond to the stark warning of a total consumption of tax revenue. Otherwise, we may lose our ability to remain a compassionate nation. The facts say that our "compassion capacity" runs out in 2038. And as John Adams said, "Facts are stubborn things."