The War on Poverty at 50: A Massive Government Failure

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the “War on Poverty,” a massive government welfare program launched by President Lyndon Johnson. National Review Online impaneled experts to assess the program’s performance during its first half-century:

By John Armstrong, president, ACT3 Network

The War on Poverty was the most ambitious attempt in American history to eradicate poverty through government planning. I believe it was a virtuous plan, driven by idealism and deeply humanitarian concerns. But it was a massive government failure. The problem was that government’s good intentions were put into a hugely bureaucratic program with little awareness of the consequences of the moral choices the program created.

Michael Novak rightly writes in Writing from Left to Right, “There is a right way and a wrong way for government to get involved in humanitarian attempts to better the human condition.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt recognized this when he warned Congress in 1935: “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.”

It was this “narcotic” that was the real culprit in the War on Poverty. LBJ’s program clearly improved the condition of the elderly. It also brought attention to the great needs of many poor African Americans. But it lost sight of the moral consequences of good intentions gone awry by removing personal responsibility. In the end it eroded the national character of millions of Americans who were subtly taught that it really is more blessed to receive than to give. The fabric of this program, as FDR warned, was flawed. In time it was a coalition of Democrats and Republicans, along with President Clinton, who legislatively addressed the flaw!

Arthur Brooks, president, American Enterprise Institute

On January 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty. How goes the battle?

The past half-century has had its ups and downs, but the past half-decade offers reason for pessimism. Since January 2009,

Food-stamp recipiency has increased fully 50 percent. Forty-eight million Americans — one-sixth of our country — require food assistance to get by;

Labor-force participation has fallen to 63 percent. The smallest fraction of Americans since the 1970s are employed or seeking work;

Uptake of disability insurance — permanent unemployment for millions — has surged by 20 percent. On average, a million new people have begun collecting disability every year;

Unemployment among African-American teens has climbed to 38 percent.

The administration is quick to blame the Great Recession (or George W. Bush), and everyone knows the fierce headwind that the economic crisis created. But ultimately, there will be no excuses: History will assign responsibility to the president of the United States. Barring a miracle, the Obama years will be remembered as the time America gave up ground in our War on Poverty.

How could the administration right the ship? It could put genuinely pro-poor policies ahead of the perpetual political campaign. The president’s denunciation of income inequality and call to increase the minimum wage may be handy political cudgels, but neither is a policy that actually helps those most in need. Equalizing incomes per se does nothing to expand opportunity. And as my colleague Mike Strain points out, high minimum wages destroy job opportunities for marginalized Americans.

A better path forward would be to lower the minimum wage while expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit. Add in disruptive education reform and a radically pro-jobs agenda including everything from energy production to corporate-tax reform, and the Obama administration could execute a political turnaround for the ages.

Will President Obama be remembered for a legendary comeback or a historic failure to help vulnerable people? Listen carefully to his State of the Union address. If the president focuses on tangential issues such as income inequality and insists on counterproductive minimum-wage hikes, we will have our answer.

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