Government’s role in making and keeping people poor is just one of the factors that make poverty endemic and make it hard to survive while poor.
For instance: Governments don’t treat recipients of the antipoverty aid they disburse especially well. It’s important to avoid comparing idealized State practice with imaginary worst-case practice in the government’s absence. If we focus on actual government practice we find that poor people are not served particularly well by the State, which routinely intrudes into the lives of recipients of assistance, violating their privacy and seeking to regulate their behavior. People pay a high price for aid from the State. Government aid programs come with hidden price tags.
And governments increase the number of poor people in part precisely through some antipoverty programs, which can create perverse incentives both for people to remain poor enough to qualify for government funds and for bureaucrats to keep people poor in order to retain their own jobs.
Governments raise the cost of being poor. Building codes and zoning regulations raise the cost of housing and so make it harder for people to find inexpensive homes. Some people are forced to live without permanent housing at all, while others must spend much larger fractions of their incomes on housing than they otherwise would. As for food, that’s also more expensive thanks to agricultural tariffs and import quotas. In the absence of government policies that make meeting their basic needs unnecessarily expensive, poor people would have more disposable income and would be more economically secure.
More than that, though, governments actively take money from poor people. Many poor people pay more in taxes than they get back in services under the State’s rule. These people would have more resources on net in the absence of the State’s demand for tax money. In addition many people are poor, or poorer, today because the State has actively stolen land and other resources from them or their ancestors or has sanctioned such thefts committed by the wealthy and well-connected. (Think eminent domain among other methods.) Historically the existence of a peasant class and of a class of displaced urban workers willing to accept employment on dismal terms is inexplicable without reference to State violence or State tolerance for or endorsement of violence by the wealthy and well-connected.
The government raises the cost of obtaining key goods and services. The State does a range of things (notably requiring professional licenses, hospital accreditation, and prescriptions and enforcing drug and medical device patents, and other restraints on trade) to make particular services such as health care especially expensive.
All these different factors fit together, each one making people’s conditions worse than they’d otherwise be and making the effects of the other factors more severe. People often start out with less money because of large-scale past injustices. They have less money now because of government limitations on the kind of work they can do and where they can do it. Their ability to provide decent lives for themselves and their families is further limited because the government raises the cost of living, and government regulation of the economy drives down the overall level of productivity even further in ways that obviously hurt the poor the most.
In sum the government plays a crucial role in creating and perpetuating poverty—and that’s really the most important thing to recognize. But of course that doesn’t mean that, absent the government’s abuses, people wouldn’t have accidents, confront disasters, and make unwise choices. With costs of living reduced, as they would be if the government completely left the economy alone, people would find it easier to deal with these challenges. They’d still need one another’s help, but those who think there’d be no way to get this kind of help except through tax-funded government agencies are mistaken.
The existence of State antipoverty programs crowds out alternatives and reduces the effectiveness of those that remain. It’s easy to view these alternatives as essentially ineffectual and anemic. But a crucial reason they’re not more vibrant is that State action commandeers money and attention that might otherwise be directed to these alternatives, creating the illusion that in the government’s absence, they couldn’t be much more effective.
Support for poverty relief doesn’t just come from tax funds now. People give money to charitable causes over and above their tax bills today, despite the huge sums the State claims. There’s no reason to think they would not do so if the government absented itself from economic life. It is naive to suppose that the wealthy and powerful are opposed to State funding for services to the poor at present; the poor have far less clout than the wealthy and powerful, and yet the State provides minimal services for poor people. Why suppose that wealthy and well-connected people willing to see the State spend their tax money to support services for the poor would be dramatically less willing to contribute to the support of such services if the government weren’t involved? (Why do people give money to good causes, including voluntary programs that help the poor? Why do wealthy and well-connected people endorse State spending on programs that provide services to poor people? Presumably for a combination of reasons, including, in no particular order, compassion, social norms, the desire for good reputations, the desire to avoid bad reputations, and the desire to avoid social disorder. All of these reasons would be operative in a free society.)