The “war on poverty” turns 50


If you’re paying attention to Washington politics, you know that there is currently a big push underway by the White House and congressional Democrats to highlight income disparities in the United States.

The familiarity of this song and dance aside — which is, of course, another attempt to turn Americans’ attention away from Obamacare, an unpopular law, and President Obama’s terrible job approval rating — it’s worth noting that today is the 50th anniversary of the “war on poverty.” After this decades-long war, the poverty rate has barely moved, despite Congress spending trillions of dollars to combat it.

The Washington Examiner explains that, by any measure, the war on poverty has been a failure when viewed at the money spent compared to the poverty rate:

[W]hen LBJ declared the war, the U.S. economy was surging and the poverty rate had already declined from 22.4 percent in 1959, the earliest year available from the Census. Between 1965 and 2012, the national poverty rate has stubbornly averaged 13.6 percent per year and it has never fallen below 11.1 percent.

During the current economic downturn, the poverty rate was 15.1 percent in 2010, and 15 percent in 2011 and 2012 (the last year for which Census data is available). That’s the highest it’s been in a three-year span since 1964, and it means a stunning 46.5 million people are still living in poverty half a century later.

It’s fair to argue that had it not been for the social safety net programs, the poverty rate would likely have been higher. But it’s also worth keeping in mind the staggering cost of social welfare programs. In fiscal year 2011, the federal government alone spent $746 billion on anti-poverty programs, according to an October 2012 report from the Congressional Research Service.

In a policy analysis released in April 2012, Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute determined that the federal government had spent $12 trillion since 1964 in its efforts to combat poverty. Adding in state and local governments, that number rises to $15 trillion. Instead, Tanner suggests today that we should take a different approach:

An effective War on Poverty, therefore, would reform our failed government school system to encourage competition and choice. High school dropouts are roughly three and a half times more likely to end up in poverty than those who complete at least a high school education, while few college graduates are poor for any extended period of time.

This doesn’t mean throwing more money at failing schools—we know that there is no correlation between education spending and achievement. Rather it means putting the interests of children before those of the teachers unions, and giving parents more control over where and how their education dollars are spent.

We should also recognize that too many of our current welfare programs actually subsidize out-of-wedlock birth. In 1964, just 6.4 percent of children were born out-of-wedlock. Today, nearly 41 percent are. Among African-Americans, more than 70 percent of children are born to single mothers.
Finally, if we want to win the War on Poverty, we should end those government policies — high taxes and regulatory excess — that inhibit growth and job creation. After all, the best route out of poverty remains a job.

Clearly, the war on poverty isn’t working. Sure, posturing on income inequality and other economic issues may be “good politics,” but it continues the cycle of insanity — doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result.

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