This past week marked the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of the war on poverty. While this was a noble act, and despite spending $15 trillion in the last 50 years, poverty remains and in many ways is more prevalent than ever.
The “war” has proven over and over that while the government may have good intentions and ideas, it is incapable of bringing these intentions and ideas to a successful conclusion.
When on Jan. 8, 1964, LBJ declared an “unconditional war on poverty,” the poverty rate in the U.S. was at 19 percent. Today it stands at only 4 percent lower, at 15 percent and climbing. Never during those 50 years did it dip below 10 percent. Instead of eliminating poverty, too many times it has created generations of people reliant on government assistance who have no incentive to get off the public dole.
Many government programs intended to help families have led to the destruction of families. Anti-poverty measures made it more beneficial for poor people to avoid marriage to collect benefits. This has resulted in an explosion of single-parent households.
The real beneficiaries of anti-poverty programs are the politicians who create them and the bureaucrats hired to run them. According to Michael Tanner, Cato Institute director of Health and Welfare Studies, there are 126 separate anti-poverty programs overseen by seven different cabinet agencies and six independent agencies all funded by the U.S. taxpayer.
The biggest problem this complex situation has created is the bureaucratic one-size-fits-all approach to running these programs. Many groups that do good work helping poor people – and could do much more – are hamstrung by rigid rules and regulations enforced by bureaucrats whose agenda many times is different than those actually trying help poor people.
Yet, there have been many successful government anti-poverty programs, most notably Head Start, WIC and S.N.A.P., which formerly was food stamps. So much more can be done.
The best way to make a difference in the war on poverty is for the generals in Washington, D.C. – those politicians and bureaucrats – to allow more autonomy to the states and the people doing the actual fighting.
To their chagrin, it would mean bureaucrats in Washington giving up power and that is unlikely to happen.