It’s almost impossible to describe the excitement that we felt as we crafted plans for new entitlement programs with few budget constraints. The programs earmarked for federal funding offered health care, education and training, housing assistance, counseling, and other social services meant to prepare the poor for their new responsibilities. Inspired partly by our slain president, who had challenged us to ask what we could do for our country, and partly by our belief that the economic system needed to be humanized by compassionate social-justice policies, we believed that we were part of something great and good.
But the government’s unprecedented expenditures failed to bring about the decline in poverty that Johnson had promised. Instead, they made things worse. Neither city hall nor I comprehended that the “community action” organizations on which we lavished taxpayer dollars would entrench dependency by urging people to get on the welfare rolls. War on Poverty funds paid for social workers, community activists, and lawyers to organize the poor, but these organizers, far from lifting poor people out of dependency, helped them sign up for more—and more expensive—welfare programs. For instance, the National Welfare Rights Organization urged single black mothers to protest the welfare system’s eligibility restrictions, and the organization’s goal was to flood the system with new clients.
The activists succeeded beyond their wildest imagination. By the end of the 1960s, during a period of economic prosperity and low unemployment, one out of every seven New Yorkers was on the dole. By 1975, War on Poverty spending (in inflation-adjusted dollars) had tripled, and the percentage of poor families’ income supplied by welfare had risen from 7.5 percent to 14.1 percent. Under the pressure of the advocates, government programs emphasized “welfare rights,” postponed self-sufficiency, supplied unproven and expensive services, and left most welfare clients out of the workforce. That’s perhaps the main reason that, as some pundits quipped, “in the War on Poverty, poverty won.” Yet my enthusiasm was undiminished; I had become a true believer. Along with my comrades on the left, I continued to think that income transfers were the most effective way to reduce the human pain of poverty.