The War (For) Poverty

Photo from

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Looking back over the last five years under liberal rule, Americans have come to understand a very simple truth at both the state and national level: liberal leadership is an oxymoron. From the Governor’s mansion to the White House, the shortcomings of the liberal agenda have become a spectacle for the nation to witness; but the problem runs deeper than just the people in charge.

For example, New Yorkers have become all too familiar with this concept. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio has virtually waged his own war for poverty by targeting and shutting down charter schools for underprivileged students. No matter that these schools have astonishingly higher test scores in almost every category compared to their public school counterparts. Rather than finding ways to capitalize on the tremendous work of these schools to educate students, de Blasio has blocked efforts with no clear alternative. But here’s the catch: this same platform was what got him 73 percent of the vote in his mayoral election.  How is this possible?

Similarly, the President has seen his approval rating drop to the low 40s as the “deadline” for healthcare enrollment approaches next week. He claimed the American people could keep their own insurance if they liked, but apparently that was just a nice thought. He said you could keep your doctor too, which has also been rescinded. Apparently this is what happens when you have to pass a bill to see what is in it. The administration has chosen to adopt executive orders and partisan strong arming as its standard operating procedures. However, as with de Blasio, this same agenda is what won the President both elections.

The answer for why voters experience such a disconnect with their lefty representatives is the vicious cycle perpetuated by the core beliefs of liberalism. Their most basic maxim is the more government the better. The only way to expand government power is to have elected officials create legislation to do so. And the only way to ensure those officials are elected is to make voters dependent on that legislation.

As a result, the stereotypes of liberals being the party of social justice and equality and conservatives as the enemy of the poor are ideologically reversed. In reality, liberals have no voter base if their constituency weans themselves off their government programs. In contrast, conservatives believe in the ownership of wealth, fighting for policy that creates opportunity for individuals rather than creating a state of dependency (i.e. welfare).

Because of this fundamental difference, liberals have no choice but to lambast and ridicule comments like those made by Paul Ryan about poverty’s roots in culture rather than allegedly oppressive conservative policy.

For if those left of center conceded that issues like poverty are rooted more deeply than dollars and cents, they put themselves in jeopardy of losing the vast majority of their voter base in exchange for more opportunity for those who need it most. God forbid.

If you would like to find out what innovative ideas are coming out of the states to address issues like these, check out for a list of state think tanks.

Why is Michigan “Right to Work” a big deal?

Michigan, the birthplace of the United Autoworkers union, passed right-to-work legislation that will prohibit coercing workers to pay union dues as a condition of employment. As it currently stands in Michigan, teachers, firefighters, home healthcare providers, and others must automatically pay a portion of their salaries to unions.

Forced unionization is wrong for moral and economic reasons. Unions today are very political in nature. For example, the SEIU contributed more than $60 million dollars to Obama’s campaign alone in 2008. Forcing people to pay a portion of their paycheck to a political organization is fundamentally immoral. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy has exposed this scheme for what it is:

The SEIU has taken over $33 million from the elderly and disabled in Michigan in the last six years through a unionization scheme it orchestrated when Jennifer Granholm was governor. The majority of these people had no idea they were being forced into a union.

The video of the Haynes family, below,  is an example of this.

In addition to being morally wrong, the economic benefits of right to work are evident. The 23 other state that have enacted right-to-work legislation prove that business growth and improvement are a result of increased workplace choice.

Of the ten states with the highest unemployment rates, seven have compulsory union membership, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Michigan ranks forty-sixth out of the fifty states and the District of Columbia with a 9.1 percent unemployment rate. (Source: Capitol Vanguard)

Despite the compelling moral and economic basis for right-to-work, there was a battle going on to undermine the efforts in Michigan that we will likely see in all other states that attempt to pass these sorts of reforms. When union dues are not compulsory, the unions become fearful of losing power. We saw the visceral reaction by protesters in this report from the state Capitol yesterday:

Assembling by choice and creating voluntary unions is a rich part of our history, but the system has been taken too far by union leaders who use coercive measures to maintain their political power. Michigan is a bright spot that provides hope to other states looking to improve workplace freedom and economic opportunity.

Who watches the watchman? You do!

Government regulations and laws can be bad in at least three ways. First, they can simply be bad on their face. Obamacare, for example, requires people to buy something (health insurance) simply because they are alive. Call it a tax on breathing. Second, they might have been created questionable legislative practices. A law that both set the state budget for funding of public schools and outlaws happy hours would violate a constitutional requirement that each law have only one subject. Finally, they can be carried out for the benefit of a few rather than the public, as when the mayor’s family is awarded a large no-bid contract.

“Transparency tools” can be helpful in all three circumstances, by exposing the workings of government to the public. These tools can bring about public pressure that can change bad laws or practices. I can’t guarantee that they’ll always be effective. But as “60 Minutes,” Andrew Brietbart, James O’Keefe and the progressive muckrakers of old have shown, exposing questionable practices to the light of day can bring good results.


The basic principle of transparency is embodied in FOIA, or the “Freedom of Information Act.” According to, “any person has a right, enforceable in court, to obtain access to federal agency records.” While the Act is a federal law, many states and local government have some version of it as well.

A lot of government information is already on the web, but if what you’re looking for is not there, you can “FOIA” the appropriate agency for it. Tell the agency what you want to know, what format you’d like it in, and how much you’re willing to pay for it. (Governments are free to charge you for research time and photocopying expenses.) Note that you won’t always get what you want, as agencies may claim that national security or the privacy concerns of employees take precedence. Don’t know how to start? has lots of information, including links to 100 different agencies to help you get started.

The Federal Register

While we’re being swamped with laws, we’re drowning in regulations. For example, the Obama Administration is EPA regulations to conduct what some people have called a “war on coal,” rather than seeking federal laws. The Federal Register is the place to look for existing and proposed federal regulations on coal and just about anything else. If a proposed regulation is open to public comment, you can even put in your two cents.

Sunshine Review

If you want to expose the working of state or local government, the Sunshine Review is your friend. You can find information there about how FOIA and Open Meetings laws apply to your state.

You can also get information about state budgets, including salaries of public employees, public pension obligations, and, my “favorite,” money that local and state governments take from taxpayers to lobby state and federal officials.

The Sunshine Review grades states, counties, cities, and school districts on their transparency practices. Units of government that do an outstanding job are honored with a Sunny Award. For example, the State of Illinois website gets an “A” for including budgets, audits, and recent contracts, which are a just a few of the points on a checklist the site applies.

Franklin Center

If you read a newspaper these days, you’re more likely to find stories about Hollywood celebreties, sports, or self-help articles than you are about the workings of government. Investigative reporting is a dying art, but the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity has stepped into the gap. It has professional journalists who follow state and local government, and it also trains citizen-journalists. If you look at nothing else on this site, visit the state resources page.

The Franklin Center operates, which is a platform of journalists to publish their news about political developments in the various states. The center also operates some state-specific watchdog sites, such as Cal Watchdog and Texas Watchdog.

If the United States is to be a self-governing republic rather than a government-knows-best country, citizens must keep watch over public officials. These tools can help in that task. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

John R. LaPlante as a senior fellow of the Free Market at the Center of the American Experiment and a contributor to