Thanks to progressivism, we’ve lost the “War on Poverty”

Posted by: Phineas on August 1, 2014 at 7:10 pm

**Posted by Phineas



The War on Poverty was launched in 1964 under Lyndon Johnson with the best of intentions: through massive spending and extensive welfare programs, the government would eradicate poverty in America and make people self-sufficient. Like I said, a worthy goal.

It has also been an utter failure. In 1964 we declared war on poverty, and poverty won.

As the chart above shows, poverty was in deep, rapid decline in America after World War II without any government help, just the natural processes of a growing, prosperous economy. It looked well on its way to elimination, perhaps. Then, in the mid to late-60s, it leveled off and, save for an occasional bump up, has stayed right around fifteen percent.What happened?

In 1964, with the start of the War on Poverty, progressives and other economically illiterate do-gooders wound up trapping people in poverty, rather than helping them out of it. As Robert Rector at The Signal writes:

Johnson did not intend to put more Americans on the dole (1). Instead, he explicitly sought to reduce the future need for welfare by making lower-income Americans productive and self-sufficient.

By this standard, the War on Poverty has been a catastrophic failure. After spending more than $20 trillion on Johnson’s war, many Americans are less capable of self-support than when the war began. This lack of progress is, in a major part, due to the welfare system itself. Welfare breaks down the habits and norms that lead to self-reliance, especially those of marriage and work. It thereby generates a pattern of increasing inter-generational dependence. The welfare state is self-perpetuating: By undermining productive social norms, welfare creates a need for even greater assistance in the future. Reforms should focus on these programs’ incentive structure to point the way toward self-sufficiency. One step is communicating that the poverty rate is better understood as self-sufficiency rate—that is, we should measure how many Americans can take care of themselves and their families.

Emphasis added.

What was it Ronald Reagan said?

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'”

One would think that, faced with all the mounds of evidence that government programs don’t lift people out of poverty, Progressives, who claim to be devoted to “progress,” would see the war on poverty has been a failure and that the programs should be reformed or discontinued and something else tried, something like less government intervention.

But, no. Few ever will be that honest, because to say government failed to reorder society as desired would be to admit that the central tenet of progressivism, a faith in the power of technocrats to manage a vastly complex society, was wrong.

Meanwhile, that core 15% remains trapped in poverty, addicted to government “crack” and walking a road paved with good intentions.

PS: Note the sharp climb back up to 15% at the end of that chart. It starts soon after the Democrats take over Congress in 2006 and undo the 1990s Clinton-Gingrich welfare reform, then accelerates under Obama. Coincidence? I think not.

RELATED: Cato economist Dan Mitchell has often written on the same topic. Here’s a post he wrote on the failures of the War on Poverty and another on the “redistribution trap.” That latter is must-reading.

(1) Many criticize that assertion, with some justification. See for example Kevin Williamson’s “The Dependency Agenda.”

(Crossposted at Public Secrets)

RSS feed for comments on this post.

3 Responses to “Thanks to progressivism, we’ve lost the “War on Poverty””


  1. For an interesting perspective from a black author try “Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder For Blacks To Succeed” by Jason L. Riley. He is a member of the WSJ editorial board and frequent Fox News contributor.

    With Common Core in the public schools to mount a war on ignorance, want to make any bets on who wins that fight?

  2. Carlos says:

    As with any of the socialist agenda fights, since there was a very slight danger of winning this particular war, every chance the socialists had they kept moving the goalposts via redefinition of what “poverty” really means. That way they could keep the 90% of the funding intended for the defined “poor” going to the statist government welfare workers administering the program. (Ask the “Reverund” Jackson how that works.)

    And miracle of miracles, the administrators kept getting richer and the poor kept getting poorer, necessitating more money being dumped at the problem, most of which went to the administrators.

    But not only did the poor keep getting “poorer,” they also lost any incentive to improve their own lot, making solid-sure votes for those who would keep the money rolling in to them for “free.”

    Funny how that works, right? But the Founding Fathers saw the danger of raiding the public treasury to buy votes. That’s why we have the Constitution.

    It’s just too bad we can’t have jurists that can read and understand simple English, and legislators who respect the work ethic more than greed, and an executive that understands the best way out of poverty is for one to work out of it, not use stolen monies to continue the lifestyle that got them there to begin with.

  3. Kdaunt says:

    And how to get out of this mess? The politicians will not risk losing voters by taking away the system so many rely on, and those that are trapped will not ask to be cut off. Even when those who are on welfare admit that it’s not what they want, they find it difficult to give up. Who will push for change?