Darrow Miller and Friends

How a Welfare Mentality Crushed the War on Poverty

In an earlier post I argued that America’s “War on Poverty” has been a dismal failure. Poverty has won the war!

As I suggested, lack of money is not the root of the problem. Thus more money (and more government bureaucracy) is not the solution.

To understand the solution we need to see the relationship between four parts of public life:

For Ps

Our poverty fighting programs are derived from government policies. Policies are grounded in principles. How often do citizens and policy makers examine the principles from which they are functioning? And the foundational level of all this are our paradigms, or worldviews. How many people concerned about poverty take time to consider how various paradigms (or sets of assumptions) affect our policies and programs?

For over 50 years we have created more programs and spent more money to end poverty, and yet poverty has increased. Perhaps it is time to curtail spending and ask some difficult questions regarding the root of poverty. Maybe we need to examine the principles and paradigms which, consciously or sub-consciously, are driving our policies and programs.

Often the problem is in the mind. There is such a thing as a poverty or entitlement mentality. “Someone else will take care of me.” “The government will take care of me!” “President Obama will take care of me.” The United States is becoming less a land of opportunity and more a land of government largess.

Chris Cabrera, a vice president in the National Border Patrol Council Local 3307 at McAllen, Texas, spends his time working along the Mexican-US border. He knows firsthand the human tragedy now taking place there. Speaking from an “on-the-ground perspective,” he states what he is hearing from illegal immigrants as to their motive for streaming across the border:

I find it odd that their whole thing is, “We are going to get amnesty when we get here. Where is my permiso [permission]? Where is my permission to go north so I can get my medical care and my schooling and all that? President Obama is going to take care of us and make sure we’re all OK.”

Whether it’s the adults or the young kids, one thing we consistently hear is, “Obama will take care of us.”

This is a prime example of how the mind of poverty works. In previous generations, people “yearning to breathe free” immigrated to America. Now would-be immigrants are yearning to be taken care of by the state.

A poverty mentality gives rise to poverty behaviors that contribute to the intransigence of poverty. In the old order, people made distinctions between virtue and vice. Virtuous people were wise. They applied the truth, choosing to live in the moral reality that God had made. Others chose to follow their baser instincts, to indulge in vices. They were foolish in their behavior and their bad choices led to bad consequences.

Some readers will take offense at my words. Some will be indignant at my audacity to make value judgments on other’s behaviors. But if we really have a heart to help people out of poverty rather than merely enabling them to live more comfortably in poverty, perhaps we need to go deeper in our analysis of the problem.

Welfare breaks down the habits and norms that lead to self-reliance

Robert Rector is senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. He wrote that President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty was intended to “attack not just the symptoms of poverty but, more important, remove the causes.” Rector continues,

By that standard, the war on poverty has been a catastrophe. The root “causes” of poverty have not shrunk but expanded as family structure disintegrated and labor-force participation among men dropped. A large segment of the population is now less capable of self-sufficiency than when the war on poverty began.

Closer to the root of the problem is family breakdown and loss of a work ethic, particularly among large segments of youth and men. Rector identifies that responsible behavior is a product of the virtues that lead to self-sufficiency:

Welfare breaks down the habits and norms that lead to self-reliance, especially those of marriage and work. It thereby generates a pattern of increasing inter-generational dependence. The welfare state is self-perpetuating: By undermining productive social norms, welfare creates a need for even greater assistance in the future.

What we are discovering is that we can buy as much poverty as we want to pay for. Author, engineer, and entrepreneur Louis Woodhill writes: “What turned the War on Poverty into a social and human catastrophe was that the enhanced welfare state created a perverse system of incentives, and people adapted to their new environment.”

– 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).