A Card-Carrying Capitalist Tackles Poverty: Richard Burkhauser's Research on Nearly Every Aspect of U.S. Poverty Policy-Income Inequality, Minimum Wage, Welfare Reform, Health Care, and Social Security-Has Turned Up Some Surprising Facts

Human Ecology, November 2009 | Go to article overview

A Card-Carrying Capitalist Tackles Poverty: Richard Burkhauser's Research on Nearly Every Aspect of U.S. Poverty Policy-Income Inequality, Minimum Wage, Welfare Reform, Health Care, and Social Security-Has Turned Up Some Surprising Facts


It's 8:55 a.m. on a bright Tuesday morning in September. Professor Richard Burkhauser is standing at the front of Call Auditorium in Kennedy Hall watching students file into Economics 1110: Introductory Microeconomics. For those who arrive early, the Bugs Bunny cartoon "The Rabbit of Seville" is playing on the main auditorium screen, a throw-back to cartoon previews that played at movie theaters during Burkhauser's childhood.

The professor is dressed patriotically in a navy blue suit, a red-striped shirt, and a red tie--fitting attire for the day's lecture, where he will make the case that low- and middle-income Americans have done better economically over the past 30 years than most people believe.

On a side screen, there is a question asking students if they've registered with the course's web site. Everyone who enters class receives a clicker they can use to answer questions that Burkhauser poses. The professor uses the technology to take attendance in the 400-person class and also to engage the large class directly.

At 9:05 a.m.--the period's official start-time--377 students have answered the first question, and Burkhauser is ready to launch into his lecture.

Some policies do more harm than good

In a field where most academics fall solidly on one side of the political spectrum, Burkhauser stands in the nearly-vacant middle ground between conservatives and liberals. An economist trained at the University of Chicago, he calls himself a card-carrying capitalist. But he applies those principles to what most would consider the liberal issues of poverty, income inequality, and policies that impact vulnerable populations.

"This is a great country," he said. "I think we've got it right in valuing individual liberty, and I think private markets do a pretty good job of allocating resources. Yet I also believe that no American who works hard and plays by the rules should be poor and that it is our responsibility through government policy to reduce such poverty. However, in doing so, we need to recognize that not all programs that claim to help the poor actually do. Too often the unintended consequences of government policies do more harm than good."

Over the past 30 years, Burkhauser has conducted research on nearly every aspect of U.S. poverty policy, including income inequality, minimum wage, welfare reform, health care, and Social Security. He's worked for the United States Information Agency, the United Nations, the renowned Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, and as a professor at Vanderbilt and Syracuse universities.

The core of his work focuses on a single question, which he explains like this: "There will always be low-income people in the United States. The question is, what do we know about them and what's the best policy in the long run to improve their economic lives?"

Middle is moving up

At the start of the Microeconomics lecture, Burkhauser displayed several questions for the class to answer with their clickers. First, he asked students to guess what their families' household incomes are, and then he compared their answers with the national distribution. Twenty-eight percent of the class said their parents earn more than $250,000 a year, compared to only 2 percent across the nation.

"You have made a wise decision in your choice of parents and there's nothing wrong with that," he told the class. "But it's important to know where you and your family fit relative to the rest of the United States distribution. From that perspective, you are now ready to learn about the economic system that created that distribution and the reasons for it."

Then Burkhauser asked a series of questions that got at two central points: whether students believe that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer; and whether the gains to African Americans and single women have been larger or smaller than average. …

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