Five decades ago, fewer than 10 percent of children were born to unmarried mothers. Unwed childbearing is not limited to low-income communities but is becoming common in working-class America as well.
The architects of the Great Society may have nobly intended to help individuals move toward self-sufficiency, but in reality its design does not accomplish that goal. Most programs act as one-way handouts that fail to motivate individuals to achieve self-sufficiency through work. The War on Poverty has failed America’s poor for decades, neglecting to encourage people to achieve their potential and contribute their talents to society. Advocates who seek to expand the welfare state seem to measure its success by the number of people receiving a benefit rather than by the number of individuals who are able to provide for themselves and subsequently move off welfare.
Today, welfare rolls grow as government-assistance programs multiply. U.S. taxpayers spend approximately 16 times as much on welfare (adjusting for inflation) as in LBJ’s day. Approximately 80 means-tested welfare programs provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to America’s poor and low-income populations. The federal government currently spends four times the amount necessary to pull every poor person out of poverty.
Yet supporters of government welfare suggest that the solution to poverty is more government assistance for more people. In recent years, government programs have sponsored food-stamp advertisements and other taxpayer-funded outreach strategies that unabashedly attempt to get anyone who may qualify onto the rolls. The aim of such efforts is not to increase opportunity by helping people move off food stamps and into steady employment—it’s just the opposite of Johnson’s intent.
If winning the War on Poverty were simply a matter of distributing material goods, government aid should have accomplished that goal by now. Rather than not spending enough, the problem is that policy has not taken into account the reality that fighting poverty does not simply mean reallocating material goods. It means helping those in need to escape government dependence and achieve self-sufficiency in the context of community.
Fighting poverty is undoubtedly complex. That’s why government welfare is limited in what it can do to protect against poverty. Government can dole out material aid, but when it comes to addressing the root causes of poverty, it has little ability to truly assist. Most poverty in America stems from deeper factors such as relational breakdown. These challenges do not find their solutions in a government check or a food-stamp card.
Policy can provide a temporary safety net for those with no other place to turn, but the deeper causes of human poverty are best addressed by those closest to the person in need: family, friends, neighbors, churches, and other institutions of civil society. It is crucial that anti-poverty policy incentives promote individual well-being and responsibility without hindering the ability of those closest to the needy to help restore their lives, relationships, and communities.
The 1996 welfare reform provides a policy model built on such sound principles and incentives. That legislative effort transformed the largest government cash welfare program into a work activation program, called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). For the first time, able-bodied adult recipients were required to work, prepare for work, or look for work in exchange for receiving welfare aid.
After the 1996 reform, welfare rolls declined by half within about five years. Employment rates among low-income individuals increased, and child poverty declined, particularly for African American children, dropping to its lowest levels in U.S. history.
Bob Woodson, founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which works with community groups by empowering those in need to overcome obstacles, tells the story of his niece and how welfare reform influenced her—and stopped undercutting his efforts to help her:
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