Darrow Miller and Friends

The War on Poverty, Part 1: Poverty Won

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.

poverty rate in America


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





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Darrow is co-founder of the Disciple Nations Alliance and a featured author and teacher. For over 30 years, Darrow has been a popular conference speaker on topics that include Christianity and culture, apologetics, worldview, poverty, and the dignity of women. From 1981 to 2007 Darrow served with Food for the Hungry International (now FH association), and from 1994 as Vice President. Before joining FH, Darrow spent three years on staff at L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland where he was discipled by Francis Schaeffer. He also served as a student pastor at Northern Arizona University and two years as a pastor of Sherman Street Fellowship in urban Denver, CO. In addition to earning his Master’s degree in Adult Education from Arizona State University, Darrow pursued graduate studies in philosophy, theology, Christian apologetics, biblical studies, and missions in the United States, Israel, and Switzerland. Darrow has authored numerous studies, articles, Bible studies and books, including Discipling Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Culture (YWAM Publishing, 1998), Nurturing the Nations: Reclaiming the Dignity of Women for Building Healthy Cultures (InterVarsity Press, 2008), LifeWork: A Biblical Theology for What You Do Every Day (YWAM, 2009), Rethinking Social Justice: Restoring Biblical Compassion (YWAM, 2015), and more. These resources along with links to free e-books, podcasts, online training programs and more can be found at Disciple Nations Alliance (https://disciplenations.org).


  1. Nathan Miller

    September 25, 2014 - 12:11 pm

    Perhaps I am too much the cynic… but I would probably re-word the statement “Johnson’s goal was noble…” to read “Johnson’s STATED goal was noble…” The eradication of poverty is indeed a noble goal, but history has shown us that the fall is real, and that what men say they want, and what they REALLY want, are often very different things. Sadly, I believe that political ideologies, agendas, strategies, and tactics are all too often hidden behind assertions of noble goals. Sadly, the American people have developed an increasingly short attention span, have largely lost the both the will and ability to critically evaluate assertions such as the ones made by the former president. This, combined with the increasingly self-centered and entertainment driven personality of our society makes us easy prey for those that would present a lofty goal like the eradication of poverty, with the intent to use that ideal as a means to amass and centralize power.
    For those that would think clearly, intentionally, and honestly about the issue the statement “Clearly we are doing something wrong. Throwing money at the problem has neither reduced poverty nor made the poor self-sufficient…” can be evaluated against facts and found to be true or untrue. The issue is that there are massive portions of the population that are unwilling or unable to make this assessment, and a tiny portion in the political establishment that maintains power by disavowing this reality and creating emotional and fear-spawning pleas to the non-thinking masses in order to retain their power.
    So, what is the REAL problem? The root is this. In terms of “mean value” the American people have largely placed their wants in front of the value of truth. In fact, significant chunks of our society have come to believe that there is no objective truth – that truth is relative – and that choosing a relative truth that benefits them to the greatest degree is not only a legitimate, but effective and good approach to their lives. So the impoverished individual makes a choice to simply collect every benefit that they are able to collect, ignoring, suppressing, or denying the pangs of guilt that come from the knowledge that this is less than they are meant to be. The political elite ignores the reality that the “war on poverty” is indeed having a radically detrimental impact on our nation, through the destruction of initiative, devaluation of the two parent family, and the creation of massive dependence – because to acknowledge this reality would be to kill the goose that is laying their golden egg. In both cases, the wants of the individual is placed in a place of greater value than is truth.
    The solution to this problem is not found in the political sphere. It will only be found in Christ’s church. It will only be found in the Church reasserting itself as the rightful caretaker of the widow indeed, of the orphan, of the dying. It will only be found in the church asserting with vigor that truth is more important that desires or power. The church is the key. She has stood on the sidelines for the last century. My prayer is that she is awakening to this reality, and that she will begin to reclaim her place in our society.

    • admin

      September 25, 2014 - 4:14 pm

      Nathan, thanks for the feedback.

  2. Jon

    September 28, 2014 - 3:34 pm

    I believe that even “conservative Christians” are contributing to this problem by tolerating any federal government poverty-relief or wealth-redistribution programs.

    “We need a safety net” they say.

    It seems that the disagreement in America between “liberals” and “conservatives” is not about whether we want a welfare state or not, but about how big we want it to be.

    I say we should get rid of the “welfare” state completely.