The US War on Poverty turned 50 this year. What have we learned?
As a young man in college, I was confronted with poverty during a six-week stay at an orphanage in Mexico City. This experience set the course of my life. It comprised a call to work to alleviate poverty in the “developing” world. Almost 50 years later my passion has not abated. In those years, I have discovered that some things create the conditions for people to escape poverty. Other things perpetuate or even exacerbate poverty. The latter include the “War on Poverty” in the US. In fact, the War on Poverty hasn’t merely failed; it has actually increased poverty.
When a government creates 126 agencies and spends $15 trillion (1.5 thousand billion dollars … some say $21.5 trillion) over a 50-year period fighting poverty, what outcome might we expect? Surely such an unsparing effort should eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, poverty in a nation!
Poverty levels haven’t changed since the War on Poverty started in 1964
But poverty levels are about the same as they were when President Lyndon Johnson declared his famous War on Poverty in 1964. The facts are undeniable, yet whole segments of the establishment leadership witness today’s continued poverty and conclude we need to spend more money.
President Obama, for example, wants to add $56 billion to the current $1 trillion in federal spending to help the poor. Jamelle Bouie, a staff writer for Slate, wrote, “By and large, the easiest solution is to mail larger checks to more people.” Bouie was responding to a proposal from Congressman Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget committee, to help poor families develop life skills to earn their way out of poverty.
Obviously, many people assume that money solves the problem of poverty. It does not. $15 trillion has not solved poverty because the root of the problem is not the lack of money.
On January 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson used his State of the Union address to announce an audacious government undertaking: to end poverty in the USA. Johnson stated, “This administration today, here and now declares unconditional war on poverty in America.” His stated goal was, “…not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.”
Johnson’s goal was noble indeed. He did not want to simply “relieve the symptom of poverty.” He did not want to put a band-aid on the problem. He wanted to attack the root of the problem, to “cure” poverty, and beyond that to assure that the conditions that created poverty would be destroyed. He wanted “to prevent it” from coming back.
Has the war on poverty succeeded … or failed?
Has the war on poverty been a success or failure? What do we have to show for the trillions of dollars and dozens of federal programs? Setting aside the goal of solving the problem at its root, have we even dealt with the symptoms of poverty?
Robert Rector, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and one of the nation’s leading experts on poverty issues, has written:
Fifty years later, we’re losing that war. Fifteen percent of Americans still live in poverty, according to the official census poverty report for 2012, unchanged since the mid-1960s. Liberals argue that we aren’t spending enough money on poverty-fighting programs, but that’s not the problem. In reality, we’re losing the war on poverty because we have forgotten the original goal, as LBJ stated it half a century ago: “to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities.”
The federal government currently runs more than 80 means-tested welfare programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care and targeted social services to poor and low-income Americans. . . . If converted to cash, current means-tested spending is five times the amount needed to eliminate all official poverty in the U.S.
In terms of Johnson’s goal of moving people towards self-sufficiency, away from dependency on government largesse, the war on poverty has been a failure. As the graph below shows,1 self-sufficiency has declined as government funding has increased.
The graph pictures the unintended consequences in the war on poverty.
The intended outcomes are obvious: the more money spent to eliminate poverty the less poverty there would be. The actual result was the opposite: money spent and the growth of poverty track together. Those who have lost their dignity, become enslaved and dependent on the government are far more than those who have become free, independent producers of wealth.
The more money spent by the government on programs to help the poor, the more people have become dependent on government programs. The unintended consequences of the implementation of the war on poverty has left more families enslaved and fewer families self-sufficient and free.
Michael Tanner, a senior research fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, has written extensively on poverty. In the abstract for his 2012 research paper, The American Welfare State: How We Spend Nearly $1 Trillion a Year Fighting Poverty — and Fail, Tanner writes:
News that the poverty rate has risen to 15.1 percent of Americans, the highest level in nearly a decade, has set off a predictable round of calls for increased government spending on social welfare programs. Yet this year the federal government will spend more than $668 billion on at least 126 different programs to fight poverty. And that does not even begin to count welfare spending by state and local governments, which adds $284 billion to that figure. In total, the United States spends nearly $1 trillion every year to fight poverty. That amounts to $20,610 for every poor person in America, or $61,830 per poor family of three.
Welfare spending increased significantly under President George W. Bush and has exploded under President Barack Obama. In fact, since President Obama took office, federal welfare spending has increased by 41 percent, more than $193 billion per year. Despite this government largess, more than 46 million Americans continue to live in poverty. Despite nearly $15 trillion in total welfare spending since Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in 1964, the poverty rate is perilously close to where we began more than 40 years ago.
This analysis is devastating.
- Federal, state and local spending on welfare programs averages a trillion dollars ($1,000,000,000,000) a year.
- For every poor person the government spends $20,610 a year.
- The amount of money spent in government “means-tested” programs is five times the amount needed to eliminate poverty in the US.
- The outcome: 15% of Americans live in poverty, roughly the same percentage as before all that money was spent.
What is wrong with this picture? Tanner continues:
Clearly we are doing something wrong. Throwing money at the problem has neither reduced poverty nor made the poor self-sufficient. It is time to reevaluate our approach to fighting poverty. We should focus less on making poverty more comfortable and more on creating the prosperity that will get people out of poverty.
How do we define success in this matter? Some measure success by the amount of money spent. By this reckoning, surely the United States has been wildly successful. Perhaps no country in history has spent more on helping its poor citizens.
But such a definition of success is unhelpful. As Tanner points out, “Shouldn’t we judge the success of our efforts to end poverty not by how much charity we provide to the poor but by how few people need such charity?”
Yes. Success means fewer people on welfare, more people thriving in their God-given potential. By this metric, the war on poverty has been a dismal failure. Poverty has won in America.
– Darrow Miller