Dan Popp
Leftist fairy tale #2: we won the war on poverty!
By Dan Popp
February 6, 2010

The days of the dole in this country are numbered. — President Lyndon Johnson, August 20, 1964

As far as I've been able to determine, socialism has never improved the quality of life of any society, anywhere on earth, for any length of time. But a committed leftist isn't daunted by a little thing like a 100% failure rate. "Failure is not an option," as long as fantasy is an alternative.

Recently I was told that one of our home-grown misadventures in socialism, the War on Poverty, had been a success. Yes, I don't know how I missed it (maybe I was watching too much Fox and not enough MSNBC), but we won. I slept right through the parades and everything.

If you compare the official poverty level in 1964 with the 2006 level on this Bureau of Labor Statistics chart, you might get the same impression. Poverty is down. But does correlation equal causation? Yes, when leftists want it to. And what happened before 1964, and with other measures of poverty? Can we really say, "Mission Accomplished"?

The Blind Shall Walk and the Lame Shall See

The War on Poverty was designed not to expand welfare, but to end welfare. It was President Kennedy who actually began this notion that if the government just provided what we might call a "stimulus for poor people," we could lick this pesky poverty problem before the weekend. Kennedy's mantra was "A hand, not a handout." Johnson declared, "Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it, and, above all, to prevent it."

Really? Prevent poverty? Here is more evidence for my claim that socialism is not an economic theory, but a religion — an anti-Christ religion. The Messiah of that other faith said, "The poor you have with you always." (John 12:8) But the superior Marxist Messiahs say, "We can prevent poverty."

The Numbers are Crunching Us

Charles Murray, in his landmark book Losing Ground, writes:

    Poverty did fall during the five Johnson years, from 18 percent of the population in 1964 to 13 percent in 1968, his last year in office, and the slope of the decrease was the steepest during this period. But the rest of the graph showing poverty before 1964 and after 1968 reveals the fallacy in the popular conception of historical cause and effect.

If we start observing the trend earlier, say at 1950, we see that poverty had already declined from over 30 percent to 18 percent before Johnson took office. After the War on Poverty programs really got rolling in the 1970s, progress against poverty stalled.

Murray breaks down the data for "Official Poverty" (the government numbers that exclude the effects of anti-poverty measures), "Net Poverty" (poverty that remains after government transfers are added in) and what he calls "Latent Poverty" (everyone who would be poor except for government transfers). Remember, that last category is what Kennedy and Johnson said they would drive down to zero: the number of government dependents.

As the Kennedy/Johnson programs were enacted, Official Poverty stopped its previous decline, as we just noted; a few years later, in 1972, Net Poverty stalled (even counting their government goodies, just as many people remained poor); but most tellingly, almost as soon as the War was declared, Latent Poverty began to increase. The program to end the dole was making more and more people dependent on government assistance.

Fantasy is Failure

Why did such ambitious and well-intended programs not produce the desired results? Largely it was because they rewarded bad behavior. Charles Murray writes that a youngster growing up in the 1970s faced an entirely different set of carrots and sticks than did his father growing up in the 1950s.

    All the changes in the incentives pointed in the same direction. It was easier to get along without a job. It was easier for a man to have a baby without being responsible for it, for a woman to have a baby without having a husband. ... Because it was easier to get along without a job, it was easier to ignore education. Because it was easier to get along without a job, it was easier to walk away from a job and thereby accumulate a record as an unreliable employee. In the end, all these changes in behavior were traps.

Your Tax Dollars, But Not at Work

Robert Rector, Katherine Bradley and Rachel Sheffield have written a report for the Heritage Foundation entitled Obama to Spend 10.3 Trillion on Welfare: Uncovering the Full Cost of Means-Tested Welfare or Aid to the Poor. Here, briefly, are some of their observations:

  • "Since the beginning of the War on Poverty, government has spent $15.9 trillion (in inflation-adjusted 2008 dollars) on means-tested welfare. In comparison, the cost of all other wars in U.S. history was $6.4 trillion (in inflation-adjusted 2008 dollars)."

  • "Around one-third of the U.S. population" is eligible to receive welfare benefits.

  • "If total means-tested welfare spending were simply converted to cash benefits, the sum would be nearly four times the amount needed to raise the income of all poor families above the official poverty line."

  • Job training comprises less than 1% of anti-poverty spending. (Chart 2)

  • "If poor women who give birth outside of marriage were married to the fathers of their children, two-thirds would immediately be lifted out of poverty."

  • "The War on Poverty created a destructive feedback loop: Welfare promoted the decline of marriage, which generated a need for more welfare."

  • "In terms of reducing the causes rather than the consequences of poverty, the War on Poverty has failed utterly."

The War on the Poor

Our defeat in the War on Poverty is not something we've only discovered recently. In 1967 New York Times columnist Tom Wicker wrote, "The aim of getting everyone off welfare and into 'participation in our affluent society' is unreal and a pipe dream." Before Johnson left office his staff admitted to reporters that, "Only 50,000 persons, or 1 percent of the 7,300,000 people on welfare, were capable of being given skills and training to make them self-sufficient."

After four and a half decades and 16 trillion dollars spent in the quixotic quest to "cure" poverty, we have about as many poor people today as we did when the War began. Welfare spending goes up, always up — and the official poverty rate wiggles around in the range of 11-15 percent.

The War on Poverty has turned out to be one of the most counterproductive, expensive and foolish mistakes in human history.

If I told you that scientists had developed a new weapon capable of breaking apart families, subverting morals, reducing productivity, and raining down misery and despair on our enemies for generations, liberals would weep, they would plead, they would protest — they would do everything in their power to prevent the use of such a weapon.

And yet it was leftists who dropped this bomb — not on their enemies, but on their supposed friends.

© Dan Popp


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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