War is kind of an intense thing to be going on for half a century. Normally it’s an armed conflict between states or peoples. But in his 1964 State of the Union Address, Pres. Lyndon Johnson used the term as a fired up way of saying we don’t like poverty and we ought to eradicate it. We’re waging war on a concept or condition.
|LBJ signing Equal Opportunity Act|
photo from Wikipedia
So how’s that going for us? Can we pause in the hostilities at the 50-year mark to measure how we’re doing? What would success in a war on poverty look like? We need some definitions.
According to (a rather biased) Wikipedia piece on the War on Poverty, the poverty rate in 1964 was 19%. Post-recession levels in 1980 were 15%, and “post-recession” levels in 2010 were still 15%. Sounds like poverty is pretty much still with us.
It would be helpful to know how they defined those percentages, so we compare apples to apples. Poverty in general (according to my favorite decades-old Webster’s dictionary) “implies a lack of the resources for reasonably comfortable living.” It goes on to describe a few related terms:
· destitution and want imply such great poverty that the means for mere subsistence, such as food and shelter, are lacking;
· indigence, a somewhat euphemistic term, implies a lack of luxuries to which one was formerly accustomed;
· penury suggests such severe poverty as to cause abjectness, or a loss of self-respect.
Poverty, then, means bad economic conditions, but you can define the range of conditions in your own mind. There’s some argument, therefore, about measurement. But if the war had been won, wouldn’t we know it without any quibbling about numbers?
In a successfully waged War on Poverty, what changes would we see?
· Destitution would have disappeared. Homelessness, at least for anyone for more than a few days, would be unheard of.
· The lowest earners would suffer less indigence; they would have food and shelter, and in some climates heat and electricity and plumbing would be considered a given in any shelter.
· And opportunities for improving one’s condition would be open to all.
We still have homelessness. Probably more than we did at the start. Some of that has to do with the change in policy for care of the mentally ill. So let’s set that aside for the current discussion.
As for indigence, that thing about heating and air conditioning and plumbing—that’s pretty much true. It wasn’t true for the middle class in 1964. My house always had heat and electricity, but we didn’t get even a window air conditioner until the mid-1970s. Some places still may not have air conditioning for the poor, but nearly all middle class homes have it, in most climates. Whatever the percentage, typically the poor have shelter with electricity, including air conditioning, and also have a phone, a television, probably a computer and a car. That would have described a relatively affluent middle-class household at the start of the war.
So does that mean the war succeeded? Again, that depends on whether what was done in the war brought about the positive outcomes. Did the War on Poverty do it, or was there enough economic freedom to bring about the progress despite government policy? That’s what’s hard to measure.
We definitely have more distribution of money to the poor, by way of tax policy, welfare programs, and various social programs. A transfer of about $20 Trillion. (The most expensive war ever—anywhere!) It continues at a rate of about $1 Trillion a year. Typical receipts from government programs for a family of four exceed $20,000 a year. I think it’s safe to say the amount of money spent on this war is more than adequate to eradicate poverty, if money transfer could solve it.
LBJ said the purpose was to “give a hand up, not a handout,” to give everyone “a fair chance to develop their own capacities.” There’s a civilizational value premise mixed in here. It is that the reason individuals are poor is their lack of opportunity, an unfairness that society can be blamed for: class bias, racism, etc. The poor are not to be blamed, and are powerless to change their situation without society (defined here as government) intervening on their behalf. So what the War on Poverty presupposes is: If people are poor, then using government to transfer money to them will eradicate poverty.”
In logic, if you start with the wrong premise (the “if” statement), you will get the wrong answer (the “then” statement). So, “If people are poor, it is not their fault but the fault of society, so society can and should pay to make amends.” But what if people are poor, in part or in whole because of their choices? What if they fail to take advantage of educational opportunities? What if they fail to work hard when there are work opportunities? What if they fail to manage their resources and run out of essentials like food and clothing because they impulse purchase entertainment or nonessentials? What if being told they are powerless makes them believe it is so?
In other words, if individuals have some part in determining their income level, then does the War on Poverty (the huge mix of policies and programs) encourage wiser behavior, or does it mitigate the pain of natural consequences, and thereby encourage unwise behavior?
A principle in the Spherical Model is that, wherever government oversteps its proper role, the unintended consequences will typically bring exactly opposite results than the stated goal. If the War on Poverty is a misguided interference, it won’t in general help people overcome obstacles to upward economic movement, but will instead get people stuck.
In the freedom/free enterprise/civilization that works beautifully whenever it’s tried, you have a way to teach people in poverty how to succeed in overcoming their indigence. You have families and churches that teach honesty, work ethic, and service. And you have charity to help the truly needy, who are known by those connected with them.
In government interference such as a War on Poverty, you have handouts that enable failure to work, and you encourage family decay.
We know that strong families contribute significantly to economic success. Alongside the War on Poverty, we have had a growing decay of family. We don’t have a growth in married two-parent families in poverty and staying there; we do have a tremendous increase in single-parent families, which are more likely to be in poverty and stay there. LBJ started with an out-of-wedlock birthrate of 8%, and 25% among blacks. A half century later, those rates are 40% overall, and 73% for blacks. If we knew no other statistic, we would know that this meant a failure to win the War on Poverty. Even if current outcomes looked good, poverty-tending families in astoundingly increased numbers would guarantee poverty for generations.
There needs to be a War on Family Decay. But, since we can’t afford failure in a war with so much at stake, let’s keep government out of it.