American Elephants

Fifty Years of the War on Poverty. We Lost. by The Elephant's Child

There has been much talk this week of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” It has been 50 years, a half-century, since the federal government declared “an unconditional war” on poverty. Another lost war. The original goal as LBJ stated it was “to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities.” And there’s the rub.

Fifty years later, fifteen percent of Americans still live in poverty, according to the official 2012 census report. Liberals argue that we aren’t spending enough money fighting poverty. Yet the federal government 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. The federal government spent $916 billion on these programs in 2012, and about 100 million Americans received aid from at least one of them, at an average cost of $9,000 per recipient. That figure does not include Social Security or Medicare benefits. Welfare spending by the federal government and the states, adjusted for inflation, is 16 times greater than it was in 1964.Converted to cash, current means-tested spending is five times the amount needed to eliminate all “official” poverty in the United States.

Poverty today bears little resemblance to poverty 50 years ago. The typical American living below the poverty level in 2013 lives in a house or apartment in good repair, equipped with air conditioning and cable TV. The home is larger than the home of the average non-poor Frenchman, German or Englishman. He has a car, more than one color TV and a DVD player. More than half have computers and a third have wide flat-screen TVs. They are not undernourished and did not suffer from hunger even once the previous year.

LBJ intended to give the poor opportunity, and shrink welfare dependence, not expand it. By that standard the “war” has been a colossal failure. The root-causes have expanded and labor-force participation among men has dropped. A large percentage are less capable of escaping poverty than when the war began. Children raised in single-parent homes are more likely to face social and behavioral problems, and three times more likely to end up in jail, and 50% more likely to be poor as adults.

The incentives in welfare discourage marriage, current programs cut benefits sharply if a mother marries a working father. A single parent going to work may lose all benefits even though their pay is less than the benefits were. All programs should encourage marriage and families. Kids need parents and a father in the home. The government should require able-bodied, working-age adults to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving benefits.

America needs to have a safety net, but able-bodied adults should work. Dependence is not healthy, and Liberals often want to give people benefits in the assumption that they are doing good. Politicians believe that generous benefits create grateful voters for their political party. But that is putting politics before the health of the nation. Surely that wouldn’t be the aim.

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