The war on poverty: Success or failure?

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson promised an unconditional war on poverty in America.

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson promised an unconditional war on poverty in America, said Michael Tanner in “Looking at the wreckage since, it’s not hard to conclude that poverty won.” In the last five decades, the government has spent a staggering $16 trillion on hundreds of anti-poverty programs. In 2012 alone, local, state, and federal government threw close to $1 trillion at the problem—an average of $20,610 for every poor person in America. “Yet today, 15 percent of Americans still live in poverty”—just 4 percent less than when Johnson gave his speech. True, living standards of the poor have certainly improved, said Robert Rector in Thanks to a variety of welfare benefits, the typical American living in poverty has a house “larger than the home of the average non-poor French, German, or English man,” furnished with air-conditioning and cable TV. But consider Johnson’s original aim: to give poor Americans “opportunity, not doles,” and to lift them into the working middle class. Instead, millions of “able-bodied, non-elderly” Americans have become utterly dependent on public assistance. “By that standard, the war on poverty has been a catastrophe.”

Yes, poverty has not been erased, said Michael Tomasky in But government programs designed to ease human misery nevertheless have been a success—“a wild success, indeed, by nearly every meaningful measure.” Johnson’s Great Society enabled a drop in infant mortality, brought health clinics to rural areas, improved neglected local schools, helped produce a rise in college completion rates, and put food in the mouths of tens of millions of hungry people. In fact, in the ’60s—before welfare programs were ruthlessly scalped by Ronald Reagan and other conservatives in subsequent decades—the poverty rate fell from 22.2 percent to 12.6 percent in just six years. Today’s rate of 15 percent would be far higher if governments eliminated Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, unemployment, and other programs, said Annie Lowrey in The job market for blue-collar workers has collapsed, and with virtually all of the economy’s gains going to the top 1 percent, safety-net programs enable countless struggling families to keep their “heads above water.”

“What looks like compassion in the short term is in the long term a refusal to deal with the problem,” said in an editorial. Democrats want to make poverty more comfortable, because welfare spending feeds the unending growth of Big Government. Instead, public policy should be aimed at giving the poor a chance to escape poverty. That’s why Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Paul Ryan have proposed a package of anti-poverty initiatives that include a “federal wage enhancement” subsidy that would reduce job-killing regulations and taxes, funnel extra dollars to poor people who get jobs, and shift federal welfare spending into bloc grants to the states, which would spend it more effectively. Crucially, they also recognize that poverty is a cultural issue, said Ari Fleischer in The main factor that separates “the haves from the have-nots” is, in fact, marriage; it stabilizes families, and can bring in a second wage. That’s why among white married couples the poverty rate in 2009 was just 3.2 percent, compared with a whopping 22 percent for white nonmarried families. Conservatives now need to encourage more people “to stay in school, get married, and have children—in that order.”

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If it were only that simple, said Stephanie Coontz in Talk to any of the millions of people who lost their jobs in the past decade, and they’ll soon tell you that graduating and getting married offers little protection against America’s entrenched “economic insecurity, joblessness, and social inequality.” And good luck with telling poor women to get married: Most cannot find a partner who can contribute financially and who will stay around.

After 50 years of this war, there can be no doubt it has both succeeded and failed, said Robert Samuelson in The Washington Post. Unquestionably, poor people are much better off. But we’ve “failed miserably” to attain LBJ’s goal of catapulting the poor into the working middle class. The lesson is clear: “Government is fairly good at handing out money; it’s less good at changing behavior.” If the war on poverty is to become a real success, liberals and conservatives will have to stop bickering over ideology. We need safety nets, but we also need new incentives and assistance for the poor to work, marry, and create productive lives.

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