With the presidential primaries already well underway, many Americans find themselves revisiting controversial topics, such as welfare, immigration, marriage and more. These issues highlight a sharp divide between right and left with focuses ranging from the individual to the community.
To help shed some light on these topics from a conservative vantage point, Business Climate caught up with Robert Rector, a senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation. Dubbed the intellectual godfather of all things welfare and immigration, Rector was the principle architect of 1996’s national reform legislation and has been known to interface regularly with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. His long-term study on the negative fiscal effects of illegal immigration drew the ire of liberals and conservatives alike. Not shy to discuss uncomfortable topics, Rector addressed the controversy surrounding his ideologies.
Tell me about the Heritage Foundation.
We’re a think tank in Washington that supports free markets and traditional values. I’ve been there since the Reagan Administration. Before that I was in grad school for political science.
What are some topics you consider yourself an advocate on?
I’m an expert on welfare, poverty and immigration. All these things are a lot larger than people understand. Take welfare, for example. Last year, we spent a trillion dollars on anti-poverty programs. We spend 75 cents on anti-poverty for every dollar we spend on Social Security and Medicare. This largely goes unrecognized because there’s 80 different programs and they’re never counted together, so they’re hidden costs. We miscount poverty in the United States because almost none of that trillion dollars is counted as income of low-income people. For example, a four-person family is considered poor if they make less than $24,000. But food stamps is not income. Public housing is not income. The Earned Income Tax Credit is not counted as income. So what you find is that people say, “No one can live on minimum wage.” Well a single mother who gets a minimum wage job, which is actually fairly uncommon, gets a bout $14,000 a year in earnings. But, she also gets another $20,000 to $25,000 a year in benefits—food, cash and medical care. Her actual economic resources are above $35,000. All those benefits are effectively hidden in public discourse.
What are some of those 80 programs?
The largest is Medicaid, and then you have SNAP and the Earned Income Tax Credit. You have Section 8 housing, supplemental security income, WIC, and on and on. There are over 15 programs that provide housing, and they’re very generous.
Are they too generous?
In some cases they are. What you need to do in welfare is have a system where the assistance supplements the individual’s efforts to help themselves, rather than displacing it. The principle mechanisms for self-support are work, education and marriage, because two incomes are higher than one. If the welfare state simply added on where it was needed, everything would be fine. But, the welfare state is highly inefficient because they discourage work and in particular discourage marriage. Each of these programs pushes down the recipient’s efforts to support themselves and engage in constructive behavior without reliance on the tax payer.
What are some ways that these programs discourage work?
Any time you give someone $30,000 a year for free, which in some cases we do, there will be an impetus to work considerably less. The way to get around that without just scrubbing the benefits is to attach a work requirement to the benefits, which was done in one program 20 years ago. But, there are no work requirements now, even in temporary assistance to needy families it is quite lax. Welfare should not be a one-way handout. It should be a system of assistance to those who need it, but it should also require constructive behavior on the part of able-bodied participants. I believe that any able-bodied recipient receiving cash, food or medical care should be prepared to work or at least look for work as a condition for getting aid. Nine out of 10 Americans believe that.
Moreover, it makes very little sense to punish low-income parents for getting married, which is what the current welfare system does as soon as the father is out of the household.
How does it do that?
The benefits are automatically cut by the way they’re structured. As soon as the husband’s income is counted, the benefits go way down. You get much more welfare if he’s not formally part of the family.
Immigration is a big topic this year with the election and it’s something you’ve studied extensively. What’s your opinion on some of the proposals?
Well, I think it’s important to understand that illegal immigrants are extremely costly to the American taxpayer. Legalizing them in every case means giving them access not only to the vote, but to the American welfare system, which is the most expensive welfare system in the world. Therefore, granting amnesty to the current illegals would cost us $6 trillion.
That figure was criticized even by members of the conservative party.
Not conservatives. It was criticized by libertarians. There’s a difference.
Well, Paul Ryan is hardly libertarian, yet he said this study hugely exaggerated the cost.
Look, here’s the simplest way to understand this. Do you believe someone with a tenth-grade education pays as much in taxes as he receives in welfare?
These individuals don’t get food stamps or Medicaid or other forms of welfare.
They get $4 of government handouts for every $1 in taxes they pay. Does Paul Ryan know anything about this? No. The average education level of an illegal immigrant is tenth grade. That individual has full access to the entire welfare state, including Social Security, Medicare, and education for his kids. That costs a lot. The only way to think otherwise would be to assume that they act somehow different than people living here who are impoverished. They’re all identical. You can go into the census reports and look at a legal immigrant family with that education level and see how much food stamps and Medicaid they got. Immigration status doesn’t vary much. If you believe an immigrant with a tenth-grade education doesn’t cost anything, you must also believe a citizen with that education doesn’t cost us anything. The welfare state is not self-funded.
The fact of the matter is that we have a massive system of redistribution where we take from the upper middle class and give it to under-privileged Americans. It’s a massive system. It’s the most expensive system in the world. If you legalize a group that has a tenth-grade education, they impose enormous cost on the taxpayer. It costs $12,000 a year to educate a child in public school in the United States. Is an individual with a tenth-grade education paying for that? Who is paying for that? The upper middle class is. We can’t have an unlimited infill of people without having enormous costs associated with it.
Paul Ryan is an open-border advocate on this issue. You cannot have open borders and a welfare state. This costs $6 trillion.
That figure was a 50-year speculation though. A lot could change and many say it doesn’t do justice to the added GDP these legal-status aliens would contribute.
It’s not speculative.
It is speculative. You don’t know what factors will arise in that amount of time. Even the CBO said it was speculative.
Well it’s speculative on the down side. I froze Medicare at the current level. Is that a reasonable assumption?
Of course not. It’s going to be much more expensive. What Obama’s amnesty did was grant people eligibility to Social Security and Medicare. My estimates are minimal and these are hugely expensive programs. There’s no way someone of this education contributes enough to pay for it. So was it a long-term estimate? Yeah.
Part of the Gang of Eight bill was to prioritize legal status for those who are college graduates, especially those with STEM degrees.
That isn’t what that bill did. That bill basically gave amnesty to virtually everyone.
A part of it was in fact that educational component. Would you support an immigration law that tests for academic achievement?
No. I don’t think you want to have any law that says, basically, “Come to the United States and have children who go to college.” One of the most telling things I’ve ever heard in this immigration debate was a Mexican expert who said that there’s lots and lots of people in Mexico who would like to come to the United States, but they respect our laws too much to do that. So, maybe we should have a swap.
You’re granting a huge financial benefit whose sole right to that benefit is that they break our laws. Out of the whole population, you broke our laws; we’re going to give you effectively $1 million each. That is irrational and unjust.
How does that cost weigh against the cost of deportation?
You don’t have to deport them. All you have to do is enforce the current laws.
What about the millions who are already here?
There are 11 million here. In 1986 we granted amnesty. Congress promised that would be the last amnesty we grant. For the first time, we declared that it was unlawful to hire illegal aliens. That second condition has not been enforced for one hour since 1987. We lied to the American public. So before you talk about anything for the future, you should keep the promise that was made 30 years ago.
You do that by implanting an e-verify. That would automatically render about five million illegals, they would not be able to be employed. It would open up five million low-skills jobs for American who have a right to be here, and for legal aliens. They would have access to those jobs and that would raise wages in those fields. You don’t have to round them up, because they don’t have that much access to welfare if we enforce the law against hiring. A majority of them will go home.
At the present time is a system that explicitly discriminates against every employer who obeys the law. There’s always a plumber or a roofer who went out of business because they would not hire illegals, but their competitors did. So we’ve essentially driven honest businessmen into bankruptcy through this very deliberate practice of lying to the American people by not enforcing our laws.
To switch gears a little, what are some problems in our society that give rise to poverty in the county?
Well, when the war on poverty began, you had about 7 percent of children living in poverty. Today, that number is 41 percent. Our society is splitting into two halves: children in the upper half being raised by married parents with a college education, and children in the bottom half are being raised by single moms with a high school diploma. In every respect, a child raised without a biological father in the home is much more likely to drop out of school, get involved in crime, and basically fail in life. That’s not something to be promoted.
It’s not a question of imposing values because they’re not hostile to marriage. Minorities will have a baby in their early 20s, and their game plan is to have a baby then find someone to marry. Anyone in the upper middle class will vouch that that is the worst idea. But we don’t tell them because we don’t want to hurt their feelings. No, let’s tell them, because their goal is a traditional one with marriage and kids and a dog and a house. So let’s tell them a proper game plan with optimal results. No one in the upper middle class does that.
That begins this cycle of disadvantage for the kids. So where does the buck stop?
Well, you’re not going to make it up by giving them more welfare. The boys need a male role model in the household. If the boys grow up without that, they drift into extremely self-destructive and anti-social roles themselves. They end up in drugs and crime and prison. Throughout low-income communities, we have displaced fathers and replaced them with welfare checks. So, let’s give them their wings back.
How then do you incentivize the father to stay?
First you have to say he’s important, which we don’t. These mothers are not having children to have toys to play with. They want their kids to succeed, so we have to show them how, and part of that is having a positive male role model. Just say that, because we do not say that anywhere in our society.
To the men, you say that you don’t want to do to your kids what your dad did to you. So just say, “You don’t know what your dad did to you, then don’t have a child with a woman that you’re not committed to. Be the dad you wish you had.”
Are there any policies that have been proposed this election year that you favor or that you don’t favor?
There’s not much of anything to discuss thus far.
So if people are interested in making some of these changes tangible, how can they do that?
At the individual state level, the states get $30 billion a year for temporary assistance to needy families. Three of the four goals of that legislation promote marriage, and almost every state ignores that. So, everything I said to you about marriage, states should encourage marriage, but they don’t because that money is controlled by liberals for the welfare status quo.