Larry Kudlow
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Message to Mitt: A rising tide lifts all boats.

That great phrase was coined by the late Jack Kemp, who believed that growth and opportunity for all is the answer to poverty. In fact, Kemp believed it was the answer to all things economic. And he was right. The best anti-poverty program is the one that creates jobs. The answer to large budget deficits? Grow the economy, create jobs, watch incomes rise, and let the tax revenues come rolling in.

Partly from Jack Kemp’s work, and partly from his own experience, Ronald Reagan believed the same thing. He knew that growth is the single best solution for our economic ailments. And neither Reagan nor Kemp saw the world in terms of specific income classes or categories. They looked at the whole economy and realized that everyone is tied together. Dragging down the top earners will not help the middle class. And providing an ever larger safety net will not solve poverty. Reagan believed in the safety net, and maintained it. But he knew it was a stop-gap, not a solution.

Does Mitt Romney understand this?

The worry stems from Romney’s ill-advised statement this week. He said, “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it.” That raises doubts as to whether he understands the Reagan-Kemp model. Perhaps he does. But he will have to tell us more.

Incidentally, the safety net has been expanding at an alarming pace. Transfer-program spending has been soaring. It’s up $600 billion, or about 35 percent, in the last three years. Medicaid, food stamps, and unemployment insurance have seen benefit levels rise and eligibility expand. This is a huge drag on the economy. We are paying too much to not work, and rewarding too little to work.

Welfarism is not compassionate. Opportunity is.

But now it’s up to Romney to propose moving the very poor out of the poverty trap by making it pay more after tax to work rather than not work. And he must persuade the electorate with a clear and detailed prescriptive agenda.

Part of the solution is tax reform, especially getting rid of the 10 percent bottom tax rate. Another part of the solution is education reform: Revive real choice and competition; spread merit pay and performance to judge the schools; and insist on high-school diplomas or associate degrees or streamlined training programs to bring the unemployed into the high tech age.

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Larry Kudlow

Lawrence Kudlow is host of CNBC’s “The Kudlow Report,” which airs nightly from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.