Politics & Policy

The War on Poverty at 50

Experts reflect on what went right and what went wrong with LBJ’s initiative.

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.”

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.

Stanley Carlson-Thies

In developed economies, even the most systematic private charity is insufficient, so government must act. But persistent poverty is more than a lack of money, and its ending takes more than money and services. Alas, LBJ’s War on Poverty, like the first big welfare expansion in the 1930s, did not rightly address the non-economic dimensions. Civil society — especially families, neighborhoods, and religious charities — was bypassed. Worse, some government programs harmed rather than rejuvenated essential institutions — think of AFDC’s damage to married families, urban renewal’s uprooting of functioning neighborhoods, and secularizing government-funding requirements that either excluded religious charities from partnerships or undermined their full vigor.

Doing nothing was no solution to real problems, but the War on Poverty, while bringing some relief, also helped to undermine structures, processes, and attitudes essential for long-term success in overcoming deeply rooted poverty.

Have we learned from experience? Are we doing better? Not much better. The national policy debate seems to have regressed to “more government vs. less government,” leaving civil society marginalized. We have little idea of how to help neighborhoods flourish. The consensus that started to form in the 1990s about the necessity of strong marriages and families — moms and dads — has been disrupted by other relationship passions.

One bright spot: The faith-based initiative of the Clinton, Bush, and now Obama years has highlighted the vital role of religious organizations, and its reforms, such as Charitable Choice, have lifted the secularizing pressures from partnerships.

But five decades after LBJ, we still have a long way to go to understand the non-economic aspects of persistent poverty. And tragically, contemporary government’s insistence on enforcing progressive values is undermining the very civil-society institutions that need to flourish.

Stanley Carlson-Thies is president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance.


Grant E. Collins II

To fight injustice, or in this case for the poor, is always noble, and there are varying opinions on how effective some of the approaches are in the end. What we can appreciate about the War on Poverty was a recognition that something needed to be done and that our government leaders were engaged and met the spirit of the challenge with the methods of that era. Today the issue isn’t poverty as much as it is a wider segment of society not flourishing. Today, many more, even with jobs, degrees, cars, and garages, also feel this sense of injustice. Poverty is as much a state of mind as it is the lack of material goods and resources, and as such, many of us are poor even with a paycheck. Our challenge today includes addressing the issues of poverty while also addressing the reasons, causes, and policies that keep so many more from flourishing.

Grant E. Collins II served as deputy director of the Office of Family Assistance at the Department of Health and Human Services.


Nicholas Eberstadt

According to official U.S.-government figures, there has been no progress whatever in reducing the prevalence of absolute poverty in our country for nearly half a century. For the year 2012, the Census Bureau counted 15 percent of the total U.S. population as having incomes below the fixed and unchanging official federal poverty line, which is adjusted only for inflation. Back in 1966, America’s “poverty rate” by that same measure was reported to be 14.7 percent.

(The poverty index used for such readings was devised during 1964 at the very start of the War on Poverty, was publicly unveiled in early 1965, and ever after has been the main government calculation deployed to track our country’s performance against poverty.)

If these statistics accurately reflected conditions in real-life America, they would be cause for alarm, outrage, and maybe even something much like political revolution, considering the enormous increases in per capita income and per capita wealth the nation enjoyed over that same period. But these figures are nonsense numbers, generated by an obviously cracked algorithm. Which is why no one in Washington (or in numerate reaches of the academy) really takes them seriously. 

Here is the fundamental and irremediable flaw with America’s official poverty rate: It measures the wrong thing. It assumes that annual income is the yardstick for determining living standards. In truth people’s living standards are always determined by annual consumption: expenditures, asset draw-downs, gifts, non-cash transfers, and all the rest.

Income levels are a miserable predictor of consumption levels for the bottom ranks in America today. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual spending power of the poorest quintile in the U.S. income distribution is well over twice their annual pre-tax reported income — and that mismatch has been gradually widening since at least the early 1970s. (And we don’t even bother to estimate total consumption for the poorest quintile, including things such as Medicaid and other public non-cash transfers.)

If we had a decent set of official poverty metrics and social indicators, we would know that the sort of material deprivation that afflicted a troubling portion of our society back in the early 1960s has been essentially eradicated — and was in fact eradicated some time ago — but that disturbing pathologies are spreading new forms of misery in our land nonetheless.

Our government officially declared war on poverty in January 1964. That long war has been the occasion of many tragedies. One of them is that we have used a broken compass to guide our long and expensive campaign to redress material want, and we have begrudged the relatively trivial outlays that could have allowed us to get a better statistical sense of our bearings.

Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.


Chester E. Finn Jr.

Forgive an aging education-reformer’s reminiscences, but LBJ’s declaration of war on poverty shaped the next 50 years of my life.

I was a Harvard undergraduate at the time, dabbling in social reform and social action via a slew of student-volunteer programs in schools, settlement houses, public-housing projects, and hospitals; not studying very hard; and expected by my family to join my father and grandfather in their Dayton law firm.

Then two things happened.

Professor Edward Banfield brought into his course on “urban problems” a young assistant secretary of labor named Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose enthusiastic explanation of the nascent “war” fired my imagination — and introduced the man who would later become my doctoral adviser, chief mentor, and the source of three riveting jobs.

And Lyndon Johnson’s oft-stated conviction that education was the surest route to vanquishing poverty engaged both the do-gooder inclinations of a 20-year-old and reflected what I was seeing among children in poor neighborhoods of Cambridge and Boston and the miserable schools they attended.

Between LBJ and Pat Moynihan, I now had a sense of mission. So I applied to the ed school instead of the law school. And on it went from there.

In retrospect, I have no career regrets, but I’ve also learned a ton about the limits of formal education (which makes up a relatively small part of a person’s life); about the difficulty of changing our major institutions; about the hazards of inflating what Uncle Sam, in particular, can do to bring about such changes; about the predilection of our politics to place adult interests ahead of children’s; and about poverty’s dogged capacity to defeat just about every intervention that a free society can devise.

In short, I became both an education reformer and a neoconservative (back in the days when that honorable term had more to do with domestic than foreign policy).

Older. Wiser (or at least chastened). Less confident — but still determined.

Chester E. Finn Jr. is senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

David French

After 50 years and trillions of dollars, the War on Poverty has brought new meaning to an old phrase: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Would any of the War on Poverty’s architects drive through our nation’s worst ghettos or enclaves of rural poverty and think, Mission accomplished? Or would they be appalled at the now-entrenched fatherlessness, the multi-generational poverty, and the addiction to “the draw” — the monthly government check that sustains entire local economies?

It’s time for a new anti-poverty program, one that begins with a seemingly modest step — a step, however, with transformational potential. It’s time to tell the government, “Do no harm.”

In other words, stop hurting the poor.

How does Big Government hurt the poor? Let me count the ways:

‐ By trapping students in failing public schools, with meaningful reform held hostage to teachers’ unions and the entrenched bureaucracy;

‐ By imposing lengthy jail sentences for even nonviolent, petty crimes, thus saddling young men with criminal records that render them largely unemployable while also sending them to prisons that double as veritable graduate schools in crime;

‐ By regulating small businesses so thoroughly that becoming an entrepreneur is increasingly a rich man’s game; and

‐ By creating legal regimes surrounding marriage, family, and sexuality that de-privilege marriage, create the illusion of single-parent autonomy, fund ghastly abortion mills, and have all together helped spur increases in fatherlessness that do more than anything else to perpetuate poverty.

This list could go on and on. At present, we have the worst of both worlds. Big-government anti-poverty programs foster dependence and drive our nation deeper into debt at the same time that other big-government programs actively harm our nation’s most vulnerable citizens.

The message is simple, but the execution is difficult. Government, stop hurting the poor. Citizens, extend your hands to your brothers and sisters in need. That’s a “war on poverty” I’d sign up to fight.

David French is senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice.


John Goodman

We have spent $15 trillion “fighting” poverty since 1965, and we are currently spending $1 trillion a year — an amount equal to about $22,000 per poor person or $88,000 for a family of four. Yet our poverty rate today (nearly 16 percent) is higher than it was in 1965 (14 percent)! If there has been a war on poverty, poverty won.

If not to reduce poverty, what difference does all this spending make? These programs are destroying the culture of the recipient communities. They are replacing a culture of self-reliance and self-help with a culture of dependency. Amazingly, a record 91.5 million people of working age — almost one-third of the entire population — are not working and not even looking for a job. Is it not obvious that we are subsidizing and enabling a way of life? To put it bluntly, we are paying young women to have children out of wedlock. We are paying them to be unemployed. And we are paying them to remain poor.

What is more, the welfare state appeals especially to those in near-poverty, promising a wide range of non-cash benefits in exchange for only one thing: a low income.

Putting more money into the system to combat poverty would probably only increase the number of poor, not decrease it. If we want to win the War on Poverty, we need to move away from government-provided aid and toward the private sector. We could funnel aid through private organizations by allowing taxpayers to allocate a portion of taxes to qualified charities that provide assistance to the indigent, rather than sending those tax dollars to government programs, such as the food-stamp system. By moving away from the public sector, which only reinforces the behaviors that make the need for aid permanent, we could wage an actual war on poverty.

John C. Goodman is president of the National Center for Policy Analysis.


Samuel Gregg

In many ways, the War on Poverty, which was such a key part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society program, represents the apogee of progressivism in America in the 20th century. Though the groundwork for this and other programs had been laid decades earlier by figures such as Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, even the latter’s New Deal paled by comparison, in terms of resources devoted, with Johnson’s effort to abolish poverty from the United States.

As we know now, Johnson’s offensive against poverty did not have the impact envisaged by its progenitors. By the early 1970s, the failure was stark. Even today, this failure remains Exhibit A for the ineffectiveness of government intervention when confronting many economic problems. Not that this has led to any major rethinking on the part of most modern leftists when it comes to their conviction that you really cannot have enough state intervention or spend enough taxpayers’ money when you’re addressing an issue like poverty. Their approach remains unchanged: Pass more laws and throw more dollars at the problem.

If there is any good news coming from the War on Poverty’s failure, it’s that we now understand more about what causes poverty — and that sometimes the causes have little to with economics per se. More of us recognize that family breakdown, addictive behavior, and mental illness often contribute to people’s descent into substandard living conditions. I fear, however, that until America exorcizes the demon of false hope — thinking that there’s nothing that can’t be fixed by a few enlightened bureaucrats armed with mountains of cash — we will continue to repeat the progressivist error over and over again. Which is, of course, the definition of insanity.

Samuel Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute and author, most recently, of Becoming Europe and Tea Party Catholic.

Kay Hymowitz

Conservatives often complain, with some justification, that President Johnson’s War on Poverty did more to increase the taxpayer-supported adult work force than to improve the lives of poor children. But we shouldn’t neglect one of the major reasons that rates of child poverty have not budged in 50 years. The poverty war coincided with a massive cultural shift in attitudes toward fathers. Starting in the mid 1960s, Americans grew increasingly blasé about the universal connection between marriage and childbearing. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was observing the first signs of this transformation when he noted in his legendary 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” that black births outside marriage were on the rise even as marriage-friendly black male employment was also improving.

To be entirely fair, Johnson was deeply affected by Moynihan’s findings and gave a graduation talk at Howard University, which he later called “the greatest civil-rights speech” of his presidency, warning of a crisis in the making. Still, the protest against Moynihan’s paper by black leaders and feminists was so intensely bitter that Johnson dropped the issue and for decades no one in official Washington dared to mention the growing connection between poverty and family breakdown. Today almost three-quarters of poor families are headed by a single mother.

Much as we might condemn government fecklessness, the prevalence of poor single mothers raises challenges for thoughtful conservatives who wish to wage war on today’s poverty. Marriage-promotion programs run by the government have had disappointing results. Though the 1996 welfare-reform law sent a record number of single mothers into the work force and briefly reduced child poverty, its impact on the poor has been limited. The truth is that a low-skilled single mother will have to depend on hefty government assistance even if she is working. Over the past decades — partly in response to changes in the low-wage labor market and partly in response to the inexorable decline of two-parent families — federal, state, and local governments have created an expensive infrastructure that enables and sustains the fragile single-mother household. The support system comprises food stamps, health insurance, subsidized housing, child care, afterschool programs, and in many cases, Social Security disability benefits and special education.

It’s by no means clear how to entirely dismantle this infrastructure, even if it were politically possible — or morally wise — to do so.

— Kay Hymowitz is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor at City Journal.

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.

Charles Murray

The pair of statistics about the War on Poverty that should get the most publicity are these: In 1949, 41 percent of Americans were below the poverty line (scholars have retrospectively applied the official definition of “poverty” to the 1950 census); when LBJ announced the War on Poverty in 1964, that proportion had dropped to 19 percent. Contemplate that pair of numbers for a moment. In just the 15 years between 1949 and 1964, the American poverty rate had dropped by 22 percentage points. What had the government done to help? By the definition of the 1960s and thereafter, nothing. The federal government sponsored no education programs for the disadvantaged. No training programs. No jobs programs. No community action. No affirmative action. No Head Start. No welfare whatsoever for men, and only a stingy cash payment for unmarried mothers, hedged with restrictions. The federal government was missing in action in the real war against poverty — and yet somehow America cut poverty by more than half.

Poverty continued to drop during LBJ’s years, which featured a red-hot economy (unemployment rates averaged 4.2 percent from 1964 to 1969). But when the economy slowed, the poverty rate flattened, hitting its low point of 11 percent in 1973. That doesn’t mean nothing has changed since then. In recent decades, the official poverty statistic has become less and less interpretable. But whatever measure is used, we have seen nothing remotely like the progress against poverty that the American economy and American civil society — not government programs — achieved from the end of World War II to 1964.

— Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


Marvin Olasky

If a particular product, activity, or orientation dramatically cut drug use, recidivism, teenage pregnancy, the rate of school dropouts, job-quitting, and many other patterns that consign millions to poverty, you’d think federal and state governments, foundations and educators, politicians and pundits, would be singing its praises and furthering its dissemination. 

It hasn’t happened that way: I’ve seen for 30 years that Bible-based programs are far more likely to work than their secular alternatives, but they are generally ignored. One reason: The War on Poverty began 50 years ago just as media, academic, and judicial leaders started to undercut the influence of Biblical understanding in American public life.

Before then, most Americans had learned that we’re all sinners who need God’s mercy to curtail our natural tendencies toward anger, promiscuity, lying, and stealing when we can get away with it and irritated coveting when we can’t. Trusting our own natures doesn’t work: When we “just do it,” we do wrong.

Those who understood the Bible also knew that each of us was created in the image of a creative God who works and sacrifices Himself for his children. Many government programs for years have enticed men to abandon wives and children, and women to declare themselves independent. We can’t beat poverty as long as government subsidies and the enticements of immediate gratification encourage single-parenthood. 

Biblical understanding over the years also gave way to the faith that excluding God from our thinking creates institutional neutrality. It doesn’t: It results in practical atheism. The War on Poverty went wrong because many of its backers, despite the success of Bible-based programs, preferred a war against God to an effective war on poverty

— Marvin Olasky is the editor in chief of the World News Group.


Mitch Pearlstein

A long time ago now, the late syndicated columnist William Raspberry was in the Twin Cities for some kind of program and a woman asked a modest question: “How do you fix poverty?” Raspberry, who was a gracious Pulitzer Prize winner, said something about how poverty was a very big problem, and as such, one could jump in just about anywhere and make a contribution. But if he had to choose just one place, he said, he would start with the boys, which is exactly where I start, principally because boys become the men whom women don’t want to marry, and usually for very good reasons.

Or more precisely, I start where I do because unless we somehow revive marriage in America, particularly in inner cities, there isn’t a chance in the world of making more than tiny dents in poverty. Which leads to another modest question: How to bring marriage back in communities where it’s nearly dead?

Claiming that getting a good education is ultimately the best strategy might sound elementary to the point of trite. But what more promising route is out there, especially for millions of boys (and girls) who have a hole in their heart where their father (and sometimes their mother) should be? What type of education might work best at filling such gaps?

The adjectives that come quickest to mind are “paternalistic” and “nurturing.” “Paternalistic” suggests tough-loving charter schools in the “sweat the small stuff” spirit of KIPP academies, and “nurturing” suggests schools in which religious belief animates much.

I certainly don’t contend that a parochial school is a right option for everyone. But might such a school work well, sometimes wonderfully, for many? No question. Not only is the case for such schools strong in terms of academics, but vouchers to provide access to them are more promising than any other strategy I know for making measurable dents in poverty.

— Mitch Pearlstein is the founder and president of Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis. His most recent book is From Family Collapse to America’s Decline: The Educational, Economic, and Social Costs of Family Fragmentation.


Michael J. Petrilli

The so-called War on Poverty has been fantastically successful at eradicating poverty among the old and devastatingly miserable at eradicating poverty among the young. It’s not hard to see why. It’s easy to reduce or eliminate poverty among people, such as seniors, who are not expected to work: Give them money and free services, like Social Security and Medicare. Voilà, problem solved. What our young people require, however, is so much more. And it’s nothing a government program can provide.

What they need, first and foremost, are parents with the emotional stability, resources, and commitment to do their most important job well. That means making good decisions daily about what they will or won’t expect of their kids; the time they will or won’t spend with them; the books they will or won’t read to them; the experiences they will or won’t provide. It shouldn’t be controversial to say, then, that many poor parents struggle to make these good decisions, often because they themselves are still growing up and are trying to do the job alone.

If we want to reduce intergenerational poverty — the real social scourge in America — we need an all-out effort to encourage everyone to follow a simple rule: Don’t have kids until you are ready to provide for them, emotionally and financially.

That means taking children who are growing up today in dysfunctional families and dysfunctional communities, and often attending dysfunctional schools, and transporting them into environments that can, as President George W. Bush would say, “touch their hearts.” The most promising among these are schools of choice that prepare students academically and vocationally — so that they might see a future for themselves beyond the walls of poverty — but also emotionally, socially, and spiritually. These are schools of character and conviction, schools with a clear sense of moral purpose, that aren’t bashful about shaping kids’ characters and compasses.

Such schools should be measured by the degree to which their graduates are college- and career-ready, yes, but also fatherhood-ready and motherhood-ready. The true measure of the impact of education reform — or any other campaign in the War on Poverty — is whether it produces self-sufficient citizens who can build strong and healthy families for the next generation.

— Michael J. Petrilli is executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and research fellow at the Hoover Institution.


John J. Pitney Jr.

In Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, Daniel Patrick Moynihan explained the fate of community-action programs with words that apply more broadly to the whole War on Poverty:

This is the essential fact. The government did not know what it was doing. It had a theory. Or, rather, a set of theories. Nothing more. The U.S. Government at this time was no more in possession of confident knowledge as to how to prevent delinquency, cure anomie, or overcome the midmorning sense of powerlessness, than it was the possessor of a dependable formula for motivating Vietnamese villagers to fight Communism.

During the decades since Moynihan wrote those words, the federal government has not grown any more intelligent or capable. If liberals think otherwise, they should ponder the rollout of Obamacare.

While people on the left should regard the War on Poverty with some humility, we on the right could use a bit of it, too. Over the years, certain conservative approaches to poverty have fallen short. Enterprise zones have had a mixed record at best. Tenant ownership of public housing, a favorite proposal of Jack Kemp’s, was doomed from the start: Who would want to buy bad apartments in bad neighborhoods? Reagan’s 1986 tax reform did take many poor people off the income-tax rolls, and Gingrich’s 1996 welfare reform did take a shot at reducing welfare dependency. But neither measure turned slums into gardens.

Activists on both sides of the spectrum need to remember that poverty is a complex problem that resists sweeping solutions.

— John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College.


Jay W. Richards

Since LBJ’s War on Poverty began in 1964, the U.S. has spent nearly $20 trillion (adjusted for inflation) on means-tested welfare programs. In fiscal year 2008 (that is, pre-Obama), federal, state, and local governments spent some $714 billion on welfare programs. This huge price was not a short-term surge: It followed a steady four-decade growth in spending. We now spend about 13 times more on welfare than we did in the mid 1960s.

This might have been worth it if poverty had been eliminated. But that hasn’t happened. The vast majority of Americans who have emerged from poverty in the last 50 years have done so by means other than government programs.

Tragically, rather than reducing childhood poverty, government programs have had the unintended effect of encouraging out-of-wedlock births and generational cycles of poverty. The trends have practically destroyed the black family in many urban areas — more than seven in ten black children are born out of wedlock — and done serious damage to poor families everywhere. The sexual revolution and the welfare state have conspired to create a vicious cycle in which family breakdown leads to a bigger, more meddlesome government, which leads to even more family breakdown.

It took decades to create this mess, and we won’t reverse it in an instant. But any defensible reforms should eliminate marriage penalties in welfare benefits, promote marriage among recipients, avoid incentivizing states to expand their welfare rols to increase their share of federal funds, and slowly return much of the burden of poverty alleviation to the private sector. Vibrant markets supplemented by private charity are the only known ways to reduce widespread poverty without exacting a very high social cost.

One thing is clear: The War on Poverty, however well intentioned, might as well have been called the War on the Poor.

— Jay W. Richards is distinguished fellow at the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics and author, most recently, of the New York Times bestselling Infiltrated.


John Stonestreet

The War on Poverty had good intentions but a bad strategy. The first question to answer before going to war is: Who am I fighting? In the same way, to “defeat” poverty, we must know what poverty we are fighting.

The government has only one type of anti-poverty weapon: a check. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a government check, all poverty looks like a lack of money. So, for the elderly with no means of income, the War on Poverty provided a desperately needed safety net.

But most poverty in America isn’t, and wasn’t, of the financial kind. Most poor children, for example, are victims of relational poverty, familial poverty, moral poverty, or all three. As the government was fighting poverty with checks, divorce rates were skyrocketing, along with out-of-wedlock births and cohabitation. To mix metaphors, it was like trying to win a football game by defending the other team’s cheerleaders.

The social and financial costs of family disintegration are incredible, and there were never enough checks to keep up. But the course has now been set. As Brad Wilcox and others have pointed out, marriage is now distinctive of middle- and upper-class America, while the underclass chooses not to participate in the institution that would deliver greatly needed stability.

Overall, the government was just the wrong army for most of the battles in this so-called war. Its clunky, one-size-fits-all approach cannot be truly effective in understanding and remedying the diverse life situations in which people find themselves. But mediating institutions — charities, churches, civic organizations, volunteer groups — are much nimbler and more effective. A better battle plan would be for the state to let them do most of the fighting.

— John Stonestreet is a speaker and fellow for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview (2nd ed.).

W. Bradford Wilcox

What can be done to renew the American Dream for people and communities mired in persistent poverty? A recent study from the Equality of Opportunity Project at Harvard and Berkeley explores the geography of economic mobility in the United States and suggests some answers. The project has been investigating the social, economic, and policy factors at the community level that boost or diminish poor children’s odds of making it economically as adults. The project’s data help explain why some communities (Salt Lake City, for instance) are much more likely to promote economic mobility for poor children than are other communities (Atlanta, for instance).

According to Harvard economist Raj Chetty, one of the project’s scholars, a number of factors — such as racial and economic integration, good schools, and religiosity — are linked to higher levels of mobility for poor children. But, in his words, the “single strongest correlate of upward mobility we find in the data” is the share of single-parent families in a community. The more single parents in a community, the more likely it is that poor children in that community are consigned to a life of a poverty; by contrast, the more two-parent families there are in a community, as with Salt Lake City, the more likely it is that poor children have a shot at living out the Horatio Alger story.

This new research may seem discouraging, insofar as the nation’s retreat from marriage can sometimes seem relentless. Fortunately, as I recently noted in a talk at the Institute for Family Studies, there are “policy models out there, from the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative to Career Academies, that have succeeded in helping low-income Americans realize their dreams of stable and supportive marriages and relationships.” So, if our policymakers are serious about renewing the American dream for our poorest citizens, they must also continue to experiment with federal and state measures that would renew the fortunes of marriage in America. After all, this new Harvard-Berkeley study suggests that it takes a married village to make the Horatio Alger story true for today’s America.

— W. Bradford Wilcox is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies. You can follow him @WilcoxNMP.

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