Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered his famous “War on Poverty” speech. Johnson’s purpose was “not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.”
His arsenal of anti-poverty programs meant to strike “at the causes, not just the consequences of poverty” by providing individuals “the opportunity to develop skills, continue education, and find useful work.” Johnson’s speech ushered in his Great Society programs, including food stamps, Head Start, and Medicaid. Many of these programs continue today, and numerous others have been added to the mix. Currently, the federal government operates roughly 80 means-tested welfare programs.
Though Johnson insisted the idea was “opportunity and not doles,” the War on Poverty has not lived up to that ideal. Government may be able to provide material assistance, but it has failed to address the deeper causes of poverty. Worse, it has discouraged the most important defenses against poverty in America—work and marriage. A half-century after Johnson’s call to arms, it is time to redirect the response. Welfare programs should be reformed to restore those in need to self-sufficiency, rather than locking them in dependence on government.
The poverty rate today remains nearly as high as when LBJ launched the War on Poverty. A stubborn poverty rate, however, does not mean government welfare spending has had no effect. The approximately $20 trillion (adjusted for inflation) in government welfare spending over the last 50 years has no doubt boosted the material living standards of America’s poor. But it has done so while encouraging dependence, not helping those in need “to develop their own capacities,” as Johnson envisioned.
Most welfare spending is not accounted for when measuring poverty. Measures of poverty exclude benefits from governmental assistance programs. Thus, the government’s poverty measure is not a good indicator of material living standards. However, it does provide a good indicator of the number of Americans reliant on government for subsistence. The poverty measure clearly shows that the rate of self-sufficiency has remained virtually unchanged.
What have declined since the 1960s are the culture and institutions that guard against poverty by helping individuals succeed and families thrive. The two main defenses against poverty—work and marriage—have declined markedly in the past five decades.
The incentive structure of the welfare system has tended to make things worse when it comes to work and marriage. The vast majority of welfare programs fail to require work of able-bodied adults. Work requirements serve as a deterrent from getting on welfare in the first place and assist those who do need help to get back on their feet more rapidly. In addition, too many welfare programs include a marriage penalty, discouraging the strongest protector against child poverty.
These features of the welfare state have interacted with larger cultural dynamics heading in the wrong direction. Work participation among some segments of America has been trending downward for the last 50 years. Among working-class, able-bodied American men in the prime of their lives (30-49 years of age), levels of industriousness have declined, explains Charles Murray. For example, in 2008, 12 percent of prime-age men with a high-school education or less were “out of the labor force,” compared to just 3 percent in 1968. Among poor households with children, even in good economic times the amount of work is low, with an average of 16 hours per week.
Family stability has also declined since the 1960s. In 1970, 90 percent of women and 80 percent of men between 25 and 29 years of age were married, whereas today only 50 percent and 40 percent are. More troublingly, over 40 percent of children are born outside of marriage annually, putting them at a significantly greater risk of poverty.