Politics & Policy

Losing the War

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

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.

These welfare programs are funded not only by the federal government but also by state governments’ payments into federal programs. Prior to the current recession, $1 out of every $7 in total federal, state, and local government spending went to means-tested welfare.

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.

Obama’s spending increases are not merely temporary responses to the current recession. Most are permanent expansions of the welfare state. According to the long-term spending plans set forth in Obama’s FY2010 budget, combined federal and state spending will not drop significantly after the recession ends.

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.

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.

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. While occasional lip service is sometimes still paid to reducing government dependence, ironically, this concept almost always appears as a justification for new government spending.

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.

This spending is unsustainable. Our nation can no longer afford the War on Poverty spending colossus.

– Robert Rector is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.


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