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

President Lyndon Johnson


Kelly Monroe Kullberg
When I am wrong, and when I am lost, I am presented with opportunities to turn around — in Biblical terms, to repent. Repentance is the gift of being set right to enjoy the journey and the fruitfulness of living rightly. When a well-founded nation is wrong and lost — with evidence in every news report — that nation is presented with opportunities to turn around. Progress is possible when we return to our spring of life and vitality. Such is our present crisis and opportunity.

America’s “war on poverty” did not begin in 1964 with LBJ, but in 1776 with men and women who had come to understand, by looking still further back in time, the created nature of humankind. They believed in a loving God who had endowed us with capacities of conscience, creativity, and generosity. Their theological anthropology, if you will, yielded love for all people. To love those in poverty was to help an inherently valuable human being back to his truest self as a creative and contributing member of a community and a nation. “The poor” were not seen in Christian America as mere material or political recipients of welfare programs. (As of 2012, there were more than 80 means-tested programs.) Neither burdens nor victims, we are human beings loved by God and man with unalienable rights and intrinsic worth. And as more people were restored to create and give back, the more generous a nation we became to the vulnerable who could not work — the more able we were to give to, as Jesus put it, “the least of these.”

America’s wellspring, our True Vine of the love of God, gave life to every branch of society: the family, churches, justice and the rule of law, a free press, the marketplace, the arts and sciences, schools, hospitals. Some good news is that today, in 2014, hundreds of nongovernmental organizations are moving again, from aid to enterprise.

Yes, we have fallen from our original glory as people and as a nation. But at the heart of the human story is an offer of redemption — this is where life gets exciting — of following the One who can make us more fully alive, again. The Author has entered the play and shown us our story. He has shown his face. His heart. Apart from this same God, we are merely glorious ruins. But with this God, we are on the journey of becoming healers and lovers and parents, of growing as artists and entrepreneurs and servant-leaders with the humility to repent and return to the source of life.

How tragic and how ironic that America’s “leaders” are discouraging those who know this Vine, and that they continue advancing solutions that lay an ax to the very Vine who gives us life and could revive us. Timeless truth is our key to the future. Thus the way forward is to go back home. In the famous words of a poet who himself turned toward home:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploring
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning  . . . 

— T.S. Eliot, “Four Quartets” (full poem here)

— Kelly Monroe Kullberg is the author of Finding God Beyond Harvard, a founder of the Veritas Forum, and president of Christians for a Sustainable Economy.

Jo Kwong
Poverty should have no “sides.” Yet the War on Poverty, as we well know, has been politically and philosophically divisive. The Right is viewed as caring only for the rich and powerful, while the Left is seen as recklessly running up entitlements. Yet our shared humanity leads us to care about those in need and help them gain secure footing. Need this be a war between the sides, rather than a war on poverty?

Put yourself in the shoes of the poor for a moment. What would you find helpful?

I’d venture to suggest that I’d welcome assistance on two primary fronts: 1) help securing my most basic needs — food, shelter, and clothing — from a local community that understands my challenges, integrated with support to help me become employable; and 2) an economic climate that helped me either find a job or make a job.

Clearly, it’s not that simple to move from poverty to employment. Those who work with the poor, whether the formerly incarcerated, victims of domestic violence, or low-income workers, all speak of the same trap: the belief that they are incapable of achieving more.

We need to invest in approaches that help people see how their lives can be different. We need to help them transition, through education and work, from a life of survival to a live of achievement. But there are many obstacles along the way, such as job barriers against those with felony records, or regulatory restrictions against small businesses and other entrepreneurial endeavors. This is unfortunate because entrepreneurship offers a wonderful second chance for those with less-than-stellar résumés.

We can straddle the divide by supporting approaches that foster liberty, opportunity, and personal responsibility, and that start from the belief that people can help themselves. We should also develop policies that dismantle disincentives to work, and we must at the same time create an economic climate that fosters job growth for all.

As we help more people make the transition to independence, we not only help them experience the dignity and joy of caring for themselves and their families, but we also preserve the safety net for those in need at that time. And one day, that could be you or me.

— Jo Kwong is director of economic opportunity at the Philanthropy Roundtable.

Jennifer A. Marshall
Fifty years in, the War on Poverty has fortified a welfare state–industrial complex while weakening society’s little platoons and disarming the vulnerable. Far from giving the poor “a fair chance to develop their own capacities,” as President Johnson sought, public assistance too often has created long-term dependence while undermining work and eroding marriage — the primary lines of defense against poverty.

Today government spends nearly $1 trillion annually on more than 80 federal means-tested programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and targeted social services for poor and low-income Americans. Despite nearly $20 trillion of taxpayers’ money spent since the War on Poverty began, the poverty rate remains nearly as high as it was in the mid 1960s.

If this war could be won with spending, it would have been won long ago. Instead, the sources of the problem are much deeper and more complex.

Since the mid ’60s, the percentage of children born outside of marriage has skyrocketed from 8 percent of all births to more than 40 percent; and, among black children, from 25 percent to about 73 percent. A child born and raised outside marriage is more than five times more likely to experience poverty than a child raised in an intact family.

Meanwhile, work has declined among some segments of the population. Even in good economic times, the average poor family with children typically is supported by what amounts to 16 hours of work a week.

The welfare reform of 1996 demonstrated that incentives matter. It transformed the largest cash-assistance program from a handout into a work-activation program; to receive benefits, recipients had to “work or prepare for work.” Welfare rolls fell by half, and poverty among single mothers saw unprecedented declines.

But the 1996 reform changed the incentives in only one of the dozens and dozens of welfare programs.

Much more must be done to serve our neighbors in need. The character of public assistance as a whole must change to offer a hand up, not a handout. Programs such as food stamps and public housing should be transformed into work-activation programs. The serious, long-term work of restoring marriage must begin now for the good of future generations.

Of such an effort, we can say with LBJ: “We cannot afford to lose it.”

— Jennifer A. Marshall is director of domestic-policy studies at the Heritage Foundation.


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