As a young boy, I grew up in the housing projects, raised by a single mother supporting three children. My mom worked 60 hours per week at a low-paying hostess job in a restaurant in Hartford, Connecticut. Even with my mom working 60 hours per week, we relied on food stamps and welfare support. My brothers and I drank powdered milk made with water, rather than real milk.
My clothes were hand-me-downs that usually had patches or other poverty-specific signs of excessive, unreplaced wear-and-tear. Many of my friends at school would not come to the sordid housing projects where I lived to play with me after school. Even as the star player on my Little League baseball team, the other kids made fun of me for my Kmart sneakers and other signs of poverty.
Soon after Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1981, my mom was told that our welfare benefits were being slashed. Ronald Reagan became a four-letter word in my home. My mother wondered how we would get by.
Before long, however, the Reagan economy took hold. Unemployment dropped, and people had much more money to spend on goods and services. My mom started getting offers from competing restaurants to join them for much higher pay. She leveraged those offers to obtain a much higher hourly wage. By the time Reagan was running for re-election in 1984, my mom was making more money on her salary alone than she was on her previous salary and welfare benefits combined. She even was able to cut back to a 40-hour work week.
Even in a strong economy, there will be some people who will have a hard time making ends meet. However, I learned first-hand that a strong economy based on economic freedom is far better for people in lower economic classes who truly want to work hard than an economy that punishes growth and seeks to buy off people with government benefits.
Growing up in the welfare projects, I saw many people who had no desire to work and who simply gamed the welfare system as best they could. I also saw many people who had personal pride and worked hard in the hope of someday improving their economic status. The Reagan free-market economy put pressure on the first group while providing unprecedented opportunities for people in the second group. Both paths and outcomes were just.
Both political parties have experience following the Reagan route and, conversely, the Jimmy Carter route that preceded it. After Ronald Reagan’s successful presidency, George H. W. Bush slipped back to a more statist economic and political worldview. Ironically, it was a Democrat—Bill Clinton—who was more true to Reagan’s policies and signed legislation (granted, after first opposing it) that restored serious work requirements for welfare recipients.
For people willing to work hard for a better life, the best thing government can do is get out of the way and let a rising economic tide lift all boats. Gumming up the economy with government intervention and excessive handouts to people who are unwilling to work for them helps nobody—not even the recipients of the handouts.
I know first-hand that economic freedom, not a state-driven economy, is truly the most charitable government policy for all.