War on Poverty hits 50

Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty — a war that has lasted longer than the War on Drugs (declared by Richard Nixon), and several real wars, including the Kennedy/Johnson Vietnam War and the Bush/Obama Afghanistan war. On this date in 1964, LBJ called on Congress to deliver activist programs designed to alleviate and eventually eliminate poverty in the US in his State of the Union speech. Fifty years later, we are about to get another SOTU speech on income inequality and poverty from an American President intent on expanding transfer programs (welfare, primarily) in order to reinvigorate the fight.

Does this tell us anything about the success of LBJ’s war? NRO’s symposium calls it a failure, one easily predicted from the forms it took, but Hoover Institution fellow Chester E. Finn recalls that it didn’t have to take the form of transfer programs:

Lyndon Johnson’s oft-stated conviction that education was the surest route to vanquishing poverty engaged both the do-gooder inclinations of a 20-year-old and reflected what I was seeing among children in poor neighborhoods of Cambridge and Boston and the miserable schools they attended.

Between LBJ and Pat Moynihan, I now had a sense of mission. So I applied to the ed school instead of the law school. And on it went from there.

In retrospect, I have no career regrets, but I’ve also learned a ton about the limits of formal education (which makes up a relatively small part of a person’s life); about the difficulty of changing our major institutions; about the hazards of inflating what Uncle Sam, in particular, can do to bring about such changes; about the predilection of our politics to place adult interests ahead of children’s; and about poverty’s dogged capacity to defeat just about every intervention that a free society can devise.

Peter Wehner also recalls Moynihan, and his early defection from the big-government approach:

In his biography of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, The Gentleman from New York, Godfrey Hodgson offers this summary of one of the men deeply involved in building what Johnson called The Great Society. While never abandoning his faith in the capacity and the duty of government to make society better, Hodgson argues, Moynihan “acquired a profound doubt about the central paradigm of liberal government: the assumption that social scientists should identify a need, devise a program of government action to meet that need and supervise the application of public money to the sore place through the ministrations of enlightened bureaucracy.”

By 1969, in a memorandum to President Nixon on the rise of welfare in New York and elsewhere, Moynihan wrote, “I believe the time has come for a President to state what increasingly is understood: that welfare as we know it is a bankrupt and destructive system…. It is also necessary to state that no one really understands why and how all this has happened.” And Moynihan’s great friend, the eminent social scientist James Q. Wilson, when asked about Moynihan’s increasing skepticism of the efficacy of government intervention in almost all circumstances, said this:

He always believes that the job of politics is to help those who can’t help themselves. But he has a scholar’s reluctance to accept the proposition that the government knows very much about how to help people who can’t help themselves.

When all that is required is to transfer money from person A to person B, as in the social security system, it works very well, and Pat has been a staunch defender of social security. But when it has to alter their character, when it has to alter whether men marry women with whom they begat a child, or when it has to reduce the crime rate, or has to deal with student radicalism, the fact of the matter is that government doesn’t know much what to do.

Heritage’s Robert Rector echoes Moynihan, with updated statistics:

Fifteen percent of Americans still live in poverty, according to the official census poverty report for 2012, unchanged since the mid-1960s. Liberals argue that we aren’t spending enough money on poverty-fighting programs, but that’s not the problem. In reality, we’re losing the war on poverty because we have forgotten the original goal, as LBJ stated it half a century ago: “to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities.”

The federal government currently 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. Government spent $916 billion on these programs in 2012 alone, and roughly 100 million Americans received aid from at least one of them, at an average cost of $9,000 per recipient. (That figure doesn’t include Social Security or Medicare benefits.) Federal and state welfare spending, adjusted for inflation, is 16 times greater than it was in 1964. If converted to cash, current means-tested spending is five times the amount needed to eliminate all official poverty in the U.S.

LBJ promised that the war on poverty would be an “investment” that would “return its cost manifold to the entire economy.” But the country has invested $20.7 trillion in 2011 dollars over the past 50 years. What does America have to show for its investment? Apparently, almost nothing: The official poverty rate persists with little improvement.

To some extent, though, that’s true because our standard of poverty has changed as well. In fact, Rector himself pointed this out a couple of years ago:

In 2005, the typical poor household, as defined by the federal government, had air conditioning and a car. For entertainment, the household had two color TVs, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player and a VCR. In the kitchen, it had a refrigerator, an oven and stove, and a microwave. Other household conveniences included a clothes washer, clothes dryer, ceiling fans, a cordless phone, and a coffee maker. The family was able to obtain medical care when needed. Their home was not overcrowded and was in good repair. By its own report, the family was not hungry and had sufficient funds during the past year to meet all essential needs.

The overwhelming majority of Americans do not regard a family living in these conditions as poor. For example, a poll conducted in June 2009 asked a nationally representative sample of the public whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “A family in the U.S. that has a decent, un-crowded house or apartment to live in, ample food to eat, access to medical care, a car, cable TV, air conditioning and a microwave at home should not be considered poor.” A full 80 percent of Republicans and 77 percent of Democrats agreed that a family living in those living conditions should not be considered poor.

With this in mind, it’s actually apparent that we largely won the war on poverty — while wasting trillions of dollars on counter-effectual government programs and larding up the federal bureaucracy.

What government proposes now isn’t poverty any longer, but fighting unequal distribution. That’s not to say that true poverty has vanished from the scene in America, but it does call into question the damage being done to the American economy by government redistribution, both through seizure and through corrosive debt, to service an ever-wider target. If we stopped the massive borrowing and narrowed spending to those truly living in poverty based on living standards, we could redirect those resources back into private sector investment, create more jobs, and see poverty reduced through natural economic means.

That would allow us to declare victory without really retreating from the actual front — and it would incentivize the able to put their energy and creativity to work while safeguarding the truly needy. In the parlance of the original analogy, we need to find ways to use smart targeting rather than carpet bombing, and find ways to save the village that doesn’t involve destroying it.