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The War on Poverty at 50
Experts reflect on what went right and what went wrong with LBJ’s initiative.

President Lyndon Johnson

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Today marks the 50th anniversary of LBJ’​s announcing his “war on poverty.” What went wrong? What, if anything, went right? What would a real war on poverty look like in 2014? Some experts reflect.
 

Josh Archambault
Our country is better when we have a meaningful safety net. The most prosperous nation in the history of the world should provide basic protections for the most vulnerable. But that safety net was intended to be effective, affordable, focused, and committed to moving people toward self-sufficiency. As we mark the 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, we see how far off the mark we are from his attempt to move beyond the “Kennedy legacy.”

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As John Goodman has recently noted, taxpayers have spent $15 trillion since 1965 “fighting” poverty (others put the figure at nearly $20 trillion, adjusted for inflation), and now spend $1 trillion a year. Are we getting the bang for our buck? More important, are our safety-net programs lifting up our truly needy neighbors toward greater opportunities and a better life?

No, and the dramatic expansions of social-welfare programs such as Medicaid and food stamps these last few years swim in a deep pool of uncertainty. Taxpayer costs are growing. And the people in honest need of help must compete for scarce services with an expanded population our welfare programs were never meant to cover. The War on Poverty is breaking the other way.

Seventy percent of low-income kids grow up to become low-income adults. We need policies that break the generational cycle that traps people in poverty. We need the political will and the moral imperative to shut down failing programs and redirect resources toward anti-poverty measures proven to work.

Reforms should transfer more management of these programs away from Washington and to the states. Past welfare reforms worked this way, with local officials able to decide how to get the right help to the right people and support them on their road to financial independence.

Change is imperative. Without it, we will continue to fight daily battles against poverty, but we will lose the war.

Josh Archambault is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability.
 

John H. Armstrong
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!

John H. Armstrong is president of the ACT3 Network in Carol Stream, Ill.
 

Arthur Brooks
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.

Arthur Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute and the Beth and Ravenel Curry Scholar in Free Enterprise.


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