Did we win the war?

Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest. — Mark Twain

This year is the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty (WOP). In January 1964, during his State of the Union speech, President Lyndon Johnson declared a “War on Poverty”. “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” In August of that year, Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which stated that it was the policy of the United States to eliminate poverty. “The United States can achieve its full economic and social potential as a nation only if every individual has the opportunity to contribute to the full extent of his capabilities and to participate in the workings of our society.”

Even before the WOP, poverty rates were falling steadily. From 1940 to 1960 the poverty rate for black families dropped from 87% to 47%, then in the 60s it dropped another 17%. In 1950 the overall poverty rate was 30%. By 1956 that had dropped to 25%. By the time of LBJ’s announcement the rate had dropped to 19%.

A few years after the WOP legislation was passed, poverty dropped to 12%. Supporters cheered that the law was working, but how much of that drop was due to the new law and how much was a continuation of a long-term trend going back to the 1940s and 50s?

Since then, now amounting to some 45 years, the poverty rate has bounced up and down between 12% and 15%. The average for the last two decades is higher than when LBJ left office. For the first time in about 50 years, the poverty rate is 15% for three years in a row. A record high 50 million Americans live in poverty. 

We can do better. We should do better.

What we have been doing for most of 50 years has not worked. The War on Poverty has not achieved its stated goals: it has not cured, prevented, or eliminated poverty. The goals were laudable but we should judge the law by its results, not its goals. The result after 50 years is an increase in poverty, not a decrease. People are trapped in poverty, not freed from it.

LBJ’s goal was to help people become prosperous and self-sufficient. Instead, people have become dependent on government, surviving from one benefit check to the next. The Act stated as a goal that “every individual has the opportunity to contribute to the full extent of his capabilities.” 50 million Americans are not contributing; the programs’ perverse incentives punish people who try to work.

Some say the WOP has been a success as measured by the great number of people receiving assistance. Wouldn’t it be better – better for poor people themselves – to measure success by the number of people who have been lifted out of poverty and no longer need assistance?

We all know Einstein’s definition of insanity: “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” For most of 50 years we have been doing the same thing year after year and the result has been to trap more and more people in poverty.

The myriad of welfare programs reward people for being poor and penalize those who try to move out of poverty and up the income ladder. Someone who works harder, takes a second job, learns more skills, might earn $10,000 more but lose $15,000 of benefits. Hence, many say “I can’t afford to take that job. I’d lose my benefits!” With perverse incentives like these, it is no wonder that we have more people in poverty and fewer people making the effort to better themselves.

New York Times’ columnist Nicholas Kristof recognized the problem: “This is painful for a liberal to admit, but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency. Our poverty programs do rescue many people, but other times they backfire.”

As a caring society we want to help the vulnerable. But do we want to trap them into a lifetime of dependency on government, where they are punished for trying to better themselves? Is it good for society to have millions of people unable to contribute their skills and energy? Is it good for the recipients themselves to live in poverty their entire lives with no hope of ever becoming self-sufficient and moving upward? 

For Kristof, “a tentative lesson from the field is that while we need safety nets, the focus should be instead on creating opportunity — and, still more difficult, on creating an environment that leads people to seize opportunities.”

Our social safety net all too often acts as a trap net. It traps people at the edge of poverty and prevents them from moving up the ladder of success. A true safety net is rarely used. People create opportunities to reach their work site above the safety net. In the unlucky event that they fall to the net, they climb back up and continue their work.

Let’s think more about creating ladders or stairways or ramps to help people escape poverty and reach for their dreams and less about nets that support them and trap them at the edge of poverty with no hope of rising higher.

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