An article in The Wichita Eagle “Plan offers hope for city’s troubled heart” (November 14, 2007) reports on the development of a plan named New Communities Initiative, its goal being the revitalizing of a depressed neighborhood in Wichita. The saddest thing in this article is the realization that there is consideration of a plan for large-scale government intervention to solve problems that are, to a large extent, caused by government itself.
The article laments low high school graduation rates and the low proficiency in math and reading. We should make sure we remember that almost all these children have gone to public schools, that is, schools owned and run by government. Plans to improve public schools almost always call for more spending. While education bureaucrats do not like to admit this, spending on government schools in Kansas has been increasing rapidly in recent years. The results of these huge spending increases are just being learned, but it is unlikely that it will produce the dramatic results that are needed.
There is a simple solution to improving schools that won’t cost more than what is already spent, and should cost even less: school choice. In parts of our country where there is school choice through vouchers — or better, through tax credits — it is low-income parents who are most appreciative of the chance for their children to escape the terrible public schools. Further, there is persuasive evidence that when faced with viable competition, the public schools themselves improve.
In Kansas, however, there is little hope that meaningful school choice will be implemented soon. Although Winston Brooks, superintendent of Wichita schools, says he is open to competition and accountability, it is a false bravado. The political climate in Kansas is such that it is nearly impossible to get even a charter school application approved, much less any form of school choice with real teeth. (See “What’s the Matter With Kansas,” January 3, 2007 Wall Street Journal.) As the government schools consume increasing resources, parents find it even harder to pay taxes and private school tuition. So the government schools, responsible for graduates who can’t read and calculate, extend their monopoly.
A continual problem in depressed areas of cities is low employment. Government again contributes to this problem by creating barriers to employment, most prominently through the minimum wage law. People have jobs because their employers value the work the employees perform more than what they pay them in wages and benefits. When government says you must pay a higher wage than what the potential employees can contribute through their labors, these low-productivity workers won’t be hired. As the minimum wage rises, which it is on the federal level, it becomes even more difficult for the least productive workers to find jobs.
The reason that some young people find it difficult to get jobs is that they don’t have the education, training, or experience to be very productive at a job. While no one likes to work for only, say $3 or $4 per hour, working for that wage is preferable to being unemployed when the minimum wage is $6 per hour. While working for $4 per hour the worker gains experience at a specific job, and experience at holding any job in general. Soon, as workers become more productive, their wages will rise. Sitting on the sidelines not working or wasting time in a government job-training program does the workers no good.
The article mentions the plight of children whose parents are in prison. More generally, this neighborhood is plagued by crime and gangs. While I do not know the proportion of these people that are in prison for crimes related to drugs, it most surely is high. Gangs exist almost solely because of the trade in illegal drugs. The government’s prohibition of drugs, then, plays a huge role in the problem of crime.
The solution is to legalize drugs. Legalize all drugs, without exception. This should not be interpreted as an endorsement of drug use, as drug abuse is a serious health problem for many people. The health problems that drug abuse causes might even increase after legalization. But the crime problem would cease to exist. No longer would people be in prison simply because they are drug addicts. With legalization, the price of drugs would rapidly decline to perhaps the cost of a pack of cigarettes or a few cocktails each day. No longer would drug addicts have to raise several hundred dollars per day through crime. No longer would gangs find selling drugs profitable, and they would likely disappear. Do the owners of liquor stores shoot each other over turf wars, and do their customers engage in crime each day to pay for their fix of cheap alcohol?
The alternative to legalization of drugs is more law enforcement aimed at decreasing the supply of illegal drugs. This government action, if successful, has this consequence: by reducing the supply of drugs, it increases their price, thereby making it even more lucrative to deal in illegal drugs.
Then there is the government’s war on poverty. The economist Walter Williams recently wrote this:
Since President Johnson’s War on Poverty, controlling for inflation, the nation has spent $9 trillion on about 80 anti-poverty programs. To put that figure in perspective, last year’s U.S. GDP was $11 trillion; $9 trillion exceeds the GDP of any nation except the U.S. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita uncovered the result of the War on Poverty — dependency and self-destructive behavior.
In the same article:
There’s one segment of the black population that suffers only a 9.9 percent poverty rate, and only 13.7 percent of its under-5-year-olds are poor. There’s another segment that suffers a 39.5 percent poverty rate, and 58.1 percent of its under-5-year-olds are poor. Among whites, one segment suffers a 6 percent poverty rate, and only 9.9 percent of its under-5-year-olds are poor. The other segment suffers a 26.4 percent poverty rate, and 52 percent of its under-5-year-olds are poor. What do you think distinguishes the high and low poverty populations among blacks? … The only distinction between both the black and white populations is marriage — lower poverty in married-couple families.
In 1960, only 28 percent of black females ages 15 to 44 were never married and illegitimacy among blacks was 22 percent. Today, the never-married rate is 56 percent and illegitimacy stands at 70 percent. If today’s black family structure were what it was in 1960, the overall black poverty rate would be in or near single digits. The weakening of the black family structure, and its devastating consequences, have nothing to do with the history of slavery or racial discrimination.
Williams and Thomas Sowell, who have studied the issue extensively, conclude that it is government anti-poverty programs that are the cause of a permanent underclass. These programs should be canceled.
We see that government — through its poor schools, the raising of barriers to employment through minimum wage laws, the prohibition of drugs, and the culture of dependency and family disintegration supported by welfare — has been a contributing factor, probably the most important factor, in the decline of this neighborhood. It is foolhardy to believe that more government programs can reverse the damage already done by past and present government programs. While I’m sure that the intent of the New Communities Initiative and its coordinating members is noble, the reality is that government intervention is dangerous to the future of Wichita and to this neighborhood.