To help the poor, the middle class will have to pay

conservatives say cut

America has a moral obligation to help its poorest citizens. But it means that middle class Americans would have to give up some of their Social Security and Medicare benefits to pay for it.

So says Arthur Brooks, a prominent conservative thinker and president of the American Enterprise Institute. He recently shared a Georgetown University stage with President Obama to discuss alleviating poverty.

Those on both sides of the political aisle want to help the poor, Brooks says.

"It's time to declare peace on the safety net," he said. "The social safety net is one of the greatest achievements of free enterprise ... that we can help to take care of people who are poor whom we've never even met."

The biggest stumbling block to helping the poor is coming up with the funds to pay for safety net programs, such as food stamps, housing assistance and Medicaid.

Related: Obama: Why struggling Americans aren't getting ahead

The money is available, Brooks says, but it's tied up in programs long considered politically untouchable: Social Security and Medicare. These benefits have turned into middle class entitlements, he argues.

Take Social Security. A large number of middle class Americans are taking more out of Social Security than they are putting in, Brooks says. He advocates raising the retirement age to 70, reducing benefits for higher income recipients and indexing annual increases to price inflation, not wage inflation.

"It's effectively become a safety net for the middle class and the upper class. We can't afford it," Brooks said.

Obama: Fighting poverty can't fall prey to cynicism
Obama: Fighting poverty can't fall prey to cynicism

Americans also have to shift their thinking about the poor. The nation should look upon those in need as "assets to develop" instead of "liabilities to manage."

This is not to say that Brooks agrees with America's current safety net system. Government assistance should be limited to to the truly indigent and require recipients to work when possible, he says.

Related: It's expensive to be poor

Also, he noted that most public assistance programs are geared to single mothers and children. More should be done to develop single young men, he said.

The poor and their defenders have to realize that the rich are "not stealing from the poor," he says. True, the rich have gotten richer faster than the poor have moved up the ladder, but that has more to do with a lack of opportunities to advance.

"The poor are not having their money taken away and given to the rich," he said.

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