Losing the War
Forty-six years ago today, President Johnson vowed to wipe out poverty.


Robert Rector

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.

As husbands left the home, the need for more welfare to support single mothers increased. The War on Poverty created a destructive feedback loop: Welfare promoted the decline of marriage, which generated the need for more welfare. Today, out-of-wedlock childbearing and the resulting growth of single-parent homes are the most important causes of child poverty. If the poor women who give birth out of wedlock married the fathers of their children, two-thirds would immediately be lifted out of poverty.

Yet, despite the dominant role that the decline of marriage plays in both welfare dependence and child poverty, it’s taboo to raise the issue in most anti-poverty discussions. Out-of-wedlock childbearing is rarely mentioned in the press; far from reducing the main cause of child poverty, the modern welfare state refuses to even acknowledge its existence. (Out-of-wedlock childbearing isn’t the same as teen pregnancy; the bulk of non-marital births occur to young adult women with low education levels, while only 7 percent occur to teenagers in high school.)

The second major cause of child poverty is parents’ lack of work. Even in good economic times, the average poor family with children has only 800 hours of work per year. This is the equivalent of one adult working 16 hours per week. The math is fairly simple: Little work equals little income equals poverty. If one adult in each poor family worked full-time through the year, the poverty rate among these families would drop by two-thirds.

Welfare reform in the mid-1990s focused attention, very briefly, on work. Federal work requirements were established in the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, which replaced the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. The new rules required a portion of able-bodied TANF recipients to work or prepare for work and strongly encouraged a decrease in welfare caseloads. In response, caseloads plummeted, employment of single mothers rose, and child poverty dropped substantially for the first time in decades. The growth of overall welfare spending slowed briefly.

But welfare reform was always more limited than the public understood. Work requirements were established in only one of 70 means-tested programs, and even in the TANF program, many recipients were unaffected.

Moreover, due to technicalities in the construction of the law, the federal work standards, which had driven the caseload reduction, lost force by around 2000. In the subsequent years, liberals in the Senate tenaciously blocked the reinstatement of federal work standards. In the absence of external pressure, most state welfare bureaucracies lapsed into their traditional role as check-writing agencies. Always limited, welfare reform is today comatose — and Congress is energetically, but quietly, seeking to pull the plug.