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Fifty years ago this week President Lyndon Johnson in his State of the Union address said,
“This administration today here and now declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join me in that effort….”
Well certainly all Americans (or at least all taxpayers) have joined the effort. Depending on the estimate you choose, between $15 and $20 trillion of taxpayer money has been expended in the last half century on programs that were born of or inspired by the War on Poverty. With the national debt now standing at $17 trillion, it’s fair to say that but for the War on Poverty, the United States would be debt free.
So what have we gotten in return for mortgaging the future of our children? Sad to say, not much. The poverty rate in America stands essentially unchanged from its level on this day 50 years ago. If nothing else, the War of Poverty has proved the words of the scripture in which Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you.” (MATT 26:11)
But unlike 50 years ago, we have much more than simply the poor with us. We now have a deeply entrenched welfare culture. An alphabet soup of anti-poverty programs has proliferated since LBJ declared war and a record proportion of Americans are receiving benefits from one or more of them.
Over the years we have changed the acronyms and prettied up some of the program names. Food stamps now go by the acronym “SNAP,” which means Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. We now call welfare “Temporary Assistance to Needy Families” (TANF).
Only in too many cases, it isn’t temporary. For millions, life on the public dole is now passed from generation to generation. Anti-poverty programs that were intended as a “leg up” have instead become a way of life.
Some War on Poverty programs continue to expand despite strong empirical evidence of their ineffectiveness. One example is the Head Start Program. It was launched in 1965 to help pre-school children from impoverished homes catch up academically with their more affluent peers. The program now spends $7 billion per year on approximately one million children. A 2011 Department of Health & Human Services study concluded that whatever gains that children might make early on in the program are essentially undetectable by the time the children reach the second grade. Some studies have concluded that there are no measurable academic gains among Head Start recipients at all.
Both Medicare and Medicaid were created under legislation passed as a part of the War on Poverty. Both programs are now themselves insolvent and threaten the very solvency of the country.
Meanwhile a massive welfare bureaucracy has arisen. Like all bureaucracies, its goal is to expand and perpetuate itself. Toward that end the administrators of the country’s various relief and anti-poverty programs actively encourage enrollment as justification for ever-expanding staffs, salaries, perks and power. One estimate says that the combined welfare bureaucracy now consumes 78 cents of every dollar allocated to it, leaving 22 cents to actually spend on recipients.
But for all of the fiscal wreckage attendant to spending $20 trillion toward no measurable result, the human cost is far worse. No less a liberal New Dealer than Franklin Roosevelt himself sounded the warning.
“The lessons of history, confirmed by evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration to the national fiber. To dole out relief is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.”
The War on Poverty may be most soundly condemned for eroding the spirit of personal responsibility. Little by little over a half century, it became socially acceptable to take rather than produce. With respect to self-sufficiency and the dignity attendant to earning one’s daily bread rather than be given it, it became acceptable to not even try.
For millions, the War of Poverty ate away their very character.
A half century is a long time to wage war. If the war hasn’t been won, prudence demands taking a long, hard look at its strategies, its tactics and indeed its very premise.