The War on Poverty: failure redefined as success

On the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation posted a devastating after-action report pronouncing it “a colossal flop” at the Daily Signal:


Since its beginning, U.S. taxpayers have spent $22 trillion on Johnson’s War on Poverty (in constant 2012 dollars). Adjusting for inflation, that’s three times more than was spent on all military wars since the American Revolution.

The federal government currently runs more than 80 means-tested welfare programs. These programs provide cash, food, housing and medical care to low-income Americans. Federal and state spending on these programs last year was $943 billion. (These figures do not include Social Security, Medicare, or Unemployment Insurance.)

Over 100 million people, about one third of the U.S. population, received aid from at least one welfare program at an average cost of $9,000 per recipient in 2013. If converted into cash, current means-tested spending is five times the amount needed to eliminate all poverty in the U.S.

And yet, the poverty rate remains chiseled in stone, unmoved after that $22 trillion in spending.  As Rector notes, the number of people officially classified as impoverished has actually gotten worse while the War on Poverty ground on.  He published his article right before the official Census numbers came out, but he was right on the nose in guessing that the poverty rate would remain fixed at around 14 percent.  To be specific, it chugged in at 14.5 percent, prompting Tim Worstall at Forbes to elaborate on a point Rector raises in his piece: isn’t it literally impossible for poverty to remain unmoved after the expenditure of $22 trillion?  No matter how badly Big Government bungles administration of the welfare state, all that dough had to go somewhere, right?

We spend near $1 trillion a year on sending things and money to the poor and that really should push some large number of those poor families over our line. But it seems that it doesn’t: so, why?

Because, would you believe it, we don’t actually count most of the money that we give to the poor as being incomes to the poor. Weird but entirely true. We have roughly, in order of size, four large programs to alleviate poverty. Medicaid, the EITC, SNAP (food stamps) and Section 8 housing vouchers. There’s a vast raft of smaller programs following on as well. And almost all of them give things (health care, food stamps, rental apartments) to people instead of cash. The EITC is paid through the tax system. And the way we measure poverty is simply that goods and benefits in kind, plus aid through the tax system, are not counted as income when we measure the poverty line.

We could give everyone twice what they get now, five times what they get now, and the number living in poverty wouldn’t change by one single person or family.


Worstall makes this observation in a post entitled, “U.S. Poverty Rate is Still 14.5%; But Yes, the War on Poverty Worked.”  In other words, he’s looking at the same data and coming to the exact opposite conclusion from Robert Rector.  $22 trillion down the hole, poverty’s the same… but it’s a fantastic success, because the poor are better off than they would have been without those immense transfer payments.  In fact, as Worstall suggests, if you add in the value of their plush Food Stamp Nation benefits, very few of them would still be considered “poor” at all.  Less than two percent of the poor are homeless, the effective child poverty rate is also less than 2 percent, and virtually none of the poor are going hungry.

“Today’s measurement is more like the number of people who would be in poverty if government weren’t going to help them,” Worstall concludes.  “Poverty is a simple lack of money and things: so giving poor people money and things does make them less poor.  By that measure the US war on poverty has done very well.  It’s only the system we use to measure it that makes it look like a failure.”

The contrast between Rector’s and Worstall’s analyses captures the great debate over Big Government in a nutshell.  The same conflicting standards could be used to measure almost every big-ticket social program, including ObamaCare.  Is the War on Poverty a failure because the number of people in poverty has not declined… or is it a success, because poverty isn’t nearly as terrible as it was before the programs began?

I lean much more toward Rector’s side of this debate than Worstall’s, but I would not dismiss what the latter is saying out of hand, and I would note that a good deal of useful political energy for the Big Government Left is bottled in the notion that government giveaway programs are successful if the recipients of the transfer payments are pleased with them.  It would be folly to forget that much of the American public would oppose the termination of programs that poor people depend heavily upon for their basic needs.


But that’s the problem: those people are dependent on government.  As both Rector and Worstall point out, we’ve gone very, very far beyond merely funding programs to provide basic sustenance to the desperately poor.  The Left works very hard to downplay the many stories of abuse emanating from Food Stamp Nation on a regular basis, precisely because they understand that the visceral reaction of taxpayers to such abuses is every bit as strong as their visceral unwillingness to take food from the mouths of the helpless.  The most recent controversy is the use of EBT cards to buy marijuana in states where it’s legal.  Put that in your pipe and smoke it, welfare-state apologists.  That’s a million light-years from what the majority of the American public has in mind when they say they support a “safety net” for the disadvantaged.

You don’t even have to get into such outright lunacy to consider the notion of people who live comfortable lives at the expense of others a sign of failure, not success.  Again, most people support the notion of a safety net, but the panoply of benefits Worstall exults mean that people who aren’t working – sometimes families that haven’t worked much over the course of several generations – are living every bit as comfortably as the working poor.  Sometimes they live as comfortably as the middle class.  It is not difficult to find states in which people on welfare have more disposable income than families working hard to earn solid middle-class incomes.  That is wrongperiod, full stop.

It’s both morally wrong and socially undesirable.  To be brutally frank, for a sizable number of people, getting a job is illogical.  The cost of benefits lost outweighs the income to be gained from working.  Sometimes the value of lost welfare benefits is so high that employment is a losing proposition – you’re not just accepting the burden of hard work for minimal gain, you’re actually worse off than you were on the dole.  The effects of such dependency on the people welfare was designed to help have been horrifying.


There is nothing to celebrate there, especially since the the money to fund these welfare programs is growing scarce.  The impending financial meltdown of federal and state governments means a good deal of the money for Food Stamp Nation is illusory.  It’s even worse than direct transfer payments… it’s transfer payments plus interest from increasing state and national debt.  And when the unbearable crunch from financing all that debt, and paying for universal entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, drains away all the government’s discretionary spending, we will not be well-served by having paid $22 trillion to maintain a stable population of people who cannot survive without the benefits we can no longer afford to provide.  There will not be a 100th anniversary of the War on Poverty, and there won’t be anyone trying to portray it as a success on the 75th.

Then there’s the question of that exorbitant price tag.  Even if one accepts the view that alleviating poverty without reducing the number of impoverished people was worth the effort, the amount of money drained away from the private sector to finance the effort is eye-popping.  To illustrate the point, note that in the passage quoted above, Worstall says that “we could give everyone twice what they get now, five times what they get now, and the number living in poverty wouldn’t change by one single person or family.”

Well, to go by the numbers, if we eliminated waste and government overhead, we could fairly literally have done that – we could have handed double or triple the value of all these welfare programs to everyone under the poverty line, in cash, and the total cost would be roughly the same.  That must be counted as appalling failure in any reasonable observer’s book.  And when you consider how fungible these benefits are to the end user – including the illegal sale and trade of food stamps, which is a thriving black market – the amount of guidance and control gained from all that inefficient bureaucracy is laughably small.  When Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) rolled out his recent welfare reforms, one of his ideas was to offer more life-planning guidance and assistance to the poor, making more of an effort to help them get off the welfare rolls, on the theory that people who have been on the dole for years could benefit from professional help in turning their lives around.  Ryan was immediately pilloried by the Left for wanting to turn welfare recipients into slaves.


One other point worth noting is that when the War on Poverty was launched, the American people were explicitly told one of the primary goals would be reducing the number of people on welfare.  Robert Rector remembers the original promises:

We can be grateful that the living standards of all Americans, including the poor, have risen in the past half century, but the War on Poverty has not succeeded according to Johnson’s original goal. Johnson’s aim was not to prop up living standards by making more and more people dependent on an ever larger welfare state. Instead, Johnson sought to increase self-sufficiency, the ability of a family to support itself out of poverty without dependence on welfare aid. Johnson asserted that the War on Poverty would actually shrink the welfare rolls and transform the poor from “taxeaters” into “taxpayers.”

That’s important.  It’s not just a bit of 50-year-old trivia, it’s relevant today – in fact, it’s still treated as an operational goal of the welfare state by even the most liberal politicians.  You will never hear a major politician from either party say, “It’s okay if the number of people on welfare stays constant forever – we just have to make sure we spend enough money to meet all their needs.”  Everyone, including Barack Obama – the most left-wing President since Johnson himself – swears up, down, and sideways that they believe the “safety net” should be temporary, not a permanent “hammock.”  All of them vow that an important goal of whatever reforms they’re proposing is to help the poor climb out of dependency and achieve self-sufficiency as productive taxpayers.  We’re looking at five decades of such promises, and none of them have been fulfilled – the percentage of the American population collecting benefits remains the same, or grows slightly worse.  The War on Poverty is a failure by both the standards of its original architects, and all of their successors.


This is an essential judgment to render both for anti-poverty programs, and everything else government does.  It is a hideous mistake to allow Big Government’s acolytes to move the goal posts.  They’d like nothing better, because if the standards of success can be rewritten by the powerful in perpetuity, nothing the State does will ever be judged a failure… so no power it seizes will ever be returned, and none of its mistakes will ever be undone.

The American people should steadfastly insist that every program be judged on the promises that were made at its inception, because those were the commitments and projections used to secure the consent of the governed, and I’m under the impression that is a very big deal in the American constitutional system.  When the definition of success is rewritten as frequently as it has been for the War on Poverty… or as often as it has already been for ObamaCare, an absolute failure by every single marker its authors laid down in 2010… we’re talking about successful fraud, not successful government.  Every con artist would love the power to rewrite his contracts on the fly, or wave off the promises he made to close the sale as a load of pillow talk that didn’t mean anything.

It would be wise to institute strict controls that terminate government programs automatically when their costs exceed certain parameters, or their performance falls below established metrics, the same way we expect both ends of private-sector business contracts to live up to their legal obligations.  If such precautions had been taken fifty years ago, the War on Poverty would have ended a long time ago, and we’d currently be experimenting with better, more efficient, less socially degenerate solutions.  I suspect those alternative approaches would be at least equally effective at ensuring people don’t starve, or lack shelter, because the American people simply would not stand for that.  There was a lot more to the declaration of war on poverty than merely a vow to prevent starvation.  It is not morally defensible, or financially sustainable, to have trillion-dollar government programs that alleviate symptoms instead of solving problems… and none of them are ever sold to us that way, are they?



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