Today marks the 46th anniversary of the War on Poverty. On March 16, 1964, Pres. Lyndon Johnson announced a new government mobilization that he claimed would yield “total victory” against poverty in the United States. Johnson promised his “war” would be an “investment” that would “return its cost manifold to the entire economy.”
The War on Poverty sparked an astonishing growth in what is called “means-tested” welfare — that is, programs targeted exclusively toward poor and low-income Americans. (By contrast, programs such as Social Security and Medicare are not means-tested and provide assistance to the elderly across the entire population.) The means-tested welfare system today comprises more than 70 federal programs, including food stamps, public housing, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and Medicaid. . .
Means-tested welfare spending has grown enormously since President Johnson’s day. After adjusting for inflation, welfare spending today is 13 times greater than it was then. Means-tested welfare spending was 1.2 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) in 1964; by 2008, it had reached 5 percent of GDP.
President Obama plans to sharply accelerate the growth in welfare spending. In FY2007, total government spending on means-tested welfare was a record-high $657 billion. By FY2011, total government spending on means-tested aid will rise to $953 billion, nearly a 50 percent increase in four years. Means-tested aid is targeted largely at the lowest-income third of the population. If $953 billion in annual spending were divided equally within this group, benefits would average more than $8,000 per person, or $32,000 per year for a family of four. . .
Since the beginning of the War on Poverty, government has spent $16.7 trillion (in inflation-adjusted 2008 dollars) on means-tested welfare. In comparison, all the military wars in U.S. history have cost a total of $6.4 trillion (also in inflation-adjusted 2008 dollars). What has the U.S. gained from this investment? When Lyndon Johnson launched his war, he declared that it would strike “at the causes, not just the consequences of poverty.” He added, “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.”
In other words, President Johnson was not proposing a massive system of welfare benefits, doled out to an ever larger population of beneficiaries over time. In fact, Johnson declared that the War on Poverty would enable the nation to make “important reductions” in future welfare spending. Johnson’s goal was an increase in self-sufficiency: to create a new generation of individuals capable of supporting themselves.
On one hand, it is true that, since the beginning of the War on Poverty, the material living conditions of the poor have improved; even the federal government cannot spend $16.7 trillion without having any impact whatsoever. But, in terms of reducing the “causes” rather than the “consequences” of poverty, the War on Poverty has failed utterly. In fact, a significant portion of the population is now less capable of prosperous self-sufficiency than it was before.
A major element in the declining capacity for self-support is the collapse of marriage in low-income communities. As the War on Poverty expanded benefits, welfare began to serve as a substitute for a husband in the home, and low-income marriage began to disappear. When Johnson launched the War on Poverty, 7 percent of American children were born out of wedlock. Today the number is 39 percent. . .
Over time, the War on Poverty has become divorced from reality. Current political discourse refuses to recognize or even mention the principal cause of poverty: the lack of work and marriage. To acknowledge those issues would be “blaming the victim.” Instead, political correctness insists that the principal cause of poverty is the unwillingness of taxpayers to sufficiently increase welfare and education spending, despite massive increases in government funding in these fields for decades — according to the Left, spending is always inadequate.
The original goal of the War on Poverty — to reduce both poverty and dependence on government — has been abandoned and forgotten.
The current goal in welfare is simply to “spread the wealth” for its own sake. The War on Poverty has become a system of permanent income redistribution, which will only increase over time.
According to President Obama’s budget projections, federal and state welfare spending will total $10.3 trillion over the next ten years. This spending will cost more than $100,000 for each taxpaying household in the U.S. Most of it will be funded by borrowing from future generations and foreign nations.