By Jonathan Meilaender
Saint Vincent alumnus Richard Burkhauser returned to the college on Tues., Sept. 24 to deliver the latest installment in the Center for Political and Economic Thought’s lecture series. The lecture, entitled “Establishing Facts inside the Beltway During the Trump Administration,” focused on Burkhauser’s recent experiences working in Washington.
In 2017, shortly after retiring as a professor of policy analysis at Cornell University, he was offered a position on President Donald Trump’s Council of Economic Advisors, a group which helps draft economic policy recommendations.
Burkhauser said he enjoyed the work, but it wasn’t always easy. When he took the job, he was told by an administration official that his job was to give them his best analysis of their policies.
“But we reserve the right to completely ignore you if necessary,” Burkhauser said the official told him.
This need to work within the official policy constraints of the administration often forced the Council to discard promising suggestions, Burkhauser said.
The Council captured the media’s attention in 2018 when it published a report recommending various ways to make welfare more efficient by introducing work requirements for recipients. One line in particular drew comment: “President Johnson’s War on Poverty, based on 1963 standards of material hardship, is largely over and has been a success,” the report read. The Council made this argument despite official poverty rate numbers that suggested little change since the 1960s, Burkhauser said.
In his lecture, Burkhauser explained why, in his opinion, the standard poverty rate measurement is a poor indicator of actual wellbeing. In particular, he argued, it fails to take into account government benefits — that is, it measures wealth before benefits, not after. Since many of those benefits come from programs started as part of Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” Burkhauser argued that it would make sense to include them in assessing poverty.
The Council’s revised metric suggests that poverty has dropped dramatically: only 2.3 percent of the U.S. population actually falls under the new poverty line, Burkhauser said. But the War on Poverty hasn’t been won quite as Johnson envisioned.
“President Johnson expected people to get out of poverty by working [...] and for people to be self-sufficient [...] The vast majority of people who are no longer in poverty are no longer in poverty because of the tremendous increase in tax and [wealth] transfers in the system,” Burkhauser said.
Paul Weisser, senior politics and philosophy dual major, attended both the lecture and a pre-lecture dinner with Burkhauser. He thought the talk was very well-done and easy to understand.
“I think it was excellent that we had someone who had not only a very intellectual background but also had significant experience in practical politics [in the Trump administration]. I thought it was great that he could put [both aspects] into a talk that, in my opinion, was really accessible to anyone with even a moderate understanding of the past 70 years of U.S. history and economic matters generally,” Weisser said.
Weisser praised Burkhauser’s argument as novel and data-driven.
“I think he was right in saying that the poverty levels are going to be arbitrary [depending on the measurement used], and I think that he was definitely correct from what I understood of his statistics in saying that since Johnson’s time, we’ve greatly decreased the poverty level that Johnson set. I hadn’t really heard anyone make most of the arguments he was making, so it was a really interesting viewpoint to hear,” Weisser said.
“I liked that he sort of closed out his talk by saying, yes, we seem to have ended Johnson’s war on poverty, but we need to continue to have a war on poverty by saying, ‘here’s our new standard of what it means to be poor, and now we can fight against that,’” he added.
However, Weisser thought that parts of Burkhauser’s argument fall into some sort of partisan politics and did not agree in all respects.
In particular, Weisser thought that any consideration of how to move forward with welfare reform would need to account for the national debt.
“I think that one of the other issues that he didn’t get into that would definitely [affect] my opinion would be the national debt, in terms of the amount of money [...] we’ll be spending on social security in the future and showing how much of the national budget it takes,” Weisser said.
Weisser thought that perhaps Burkhauser’s implication that welfare reform should focus on means of providing work, rather than merely benefits, might be a step in the right direction in that regard.
“I would personally want to consider the national debt. The welfare programs which constituted a large portion of Johnson's Great Society threaten to cost more than ever, a factor which would cause me to favor work-related poverty relief rather than welfare based systems,” he said.
Burkhauser, who graduated in 1965, was happy to be back at Saint Vincent. He comes back with some frequency, he said, because he’s on the McKenna School’s Board of Overseers. That means he has seen many changes over the years.
“It’s a much, much better college in virtually every way, including having women as well as men. There wasn’t really a thriving business school then,” Burkhauser said.
He was especially pleased with the way successive Saint Vincent administrations have improved the college’s physical footprint.
“The facilities really improved, the Rogers’ Center, the education and science centers. You don’t see this happening at many small colleges. It’s because of good management, you’ve had really an outstanding set of presidents that have made this a much better place,” Burkhauser said.