In our opinion: How to win the war on poverty

Published: Sunday, Jan. 12 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

Lynda Johnson Robb, President Lyndon B. Johnson's daughter, right, joined by members of the Congressional Black Caucus and others, speaks during an event on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, marking the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's declaration of the War on Poverty.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press

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Much has been made of the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a war on poverty — something he did as part of his State of the Union address that year.

By some measures, government has spent at least $15 trillion on this war, and federal spending is 286 percent higher today than when LBJ and Congress fired the first shots. Yet even liberals anxious to extol the progress made since then say overall poverty has fallen only from 26 percent to 16 percent, according to some Columbia University economists. Others cite different figures to show no improvement at all.

But even the somewhat rosy view (shouldn’t $15 trillion buy more than that?) derives its results by figuring in government intervention, which means it counts people being propped up by welfare programs as out of poverty.

Writing for The Washington Post, Dylan Matthews says food stamps kept 4 million people out of poverty in 2012 alone. But can someone dependent on the government for food really be considered to be prospering? Shouldn’t the greater goal be to provide the incentives to help people rise up and become self-sufficient? And shouldn’t government be more involved in encouraging behavior that is proven to result in higher living standards?

The answer to both should be obvious. The second question, in particular, is packed with plenty of warning signs about trouble ahead.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has said marriage is the one behavior proven to end poverty. He is right, although the answer is not so simple as to somehow force everyone living together out of wedlock to tie the knot, as critics imply while oversimplifying the issue. Living together out of wedlock is a disastrous prelude to marriage. Most such schemes end in divorce, even if they do lead to marriage in the first place. The key to marriage lies in a quality courtship and a sense of commitment and loyalty that goes far beyond telling a partner you would like to take him or her for a test drive first.

In the United States, the declining marriage rate has not been an equal-opportunity failure. It strikes hardest at the least educated. Research by Charles Murray has shown that college-educated young people still marry at about an 84 percent rate, while those with less education do so at only about 48 percent.

Data from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia shows that children from intact marriages are far more likely to attend and graduate from college, and subsequently earn high wages, than those from broken homes. But the difference is particularly stark for children in low-income families.

For these children, having married, committed parents may be the best hope for rising out of poverty. Children from broken homes are 82 percent more likely to live low-income situations than those from married households, according to the Heritage Foundation. They also are more likely to engage in harmful behavior of their own, including producing children out of wedlock.

Poverty has as many causes as it has faces. It can be linked to health, an inadequate education system and a host of other factors. A safety net of some kind likely always will be necessary. But government gets in the way when it produces a culture of dependency, or when it ties private enterprise in so much bureaucratic red tape it inhibits job growth.

Utah Sen. Mike Lee may have said it best recently when he said the war on poverty really began in 1776, not in 1964. The founders of this nation declared a God-given universal right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and then established a government that fostered those rights.

Virtually all of recorded human history up to that point had been about wealth for a select few and poverty for the rest. Since then, the story has been quite different, not only here but in other nations that have adopted similar ideals.

Life expectancies have dramatically increased. Technology has expanded in unimaginable ways. Health care regularly produces miracles even kings couldn’t have hoped for in the past. Wages are up and prices are down, and leisure time has exploded.

Yes, many still suffer in deep poverty. But the key is to provide them and their children opportunities to rise above handouts, to promote lasting marriages and to unlock the creative forces of freedom.

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