This year marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s launch of the War on Poverty. In January 1964, Johnson declared “unconditional war on poverty in America.” Since then, the taxpayers have spent $22 trillion on Johnson’s war. Adjusted for inflation, that’s three times the cost of all military wars since the American Revolution.
Last year, government spent $943 billion dollars providing cash, food, housing and medical care to poor and low-income Americans. (That figure doesn’t include Social Security or Medicare.) More than 100 million people, or one-third of Americans, received some type of welfare aid, at an average cost of $9,000 per recipient. If converted into cash, this spending was five times what was needed to eliminate all poverty in the U.S.
The U.S. Census Bureau has just released its annual poverty report. The report claims that in 2013, 14.5 percent of Americans were poor. Remarkably, that’s almost the same poverty rate as in 1967, three years after the War on Poverty started. How can that be? How can government spend $9,000 per recipient and have no effect on poverty? The answer is – it can’t.
Census counts a family as poor if its “income” falls below certain thresholds. But in counting “income,” Census ignores almost all of the $943 billion in annual welfare spending. This, of course, makes the Census poverty figures very misleading.
The actual living conditions of households labeled as poor by Census are surprising to most people. According to the government’s own surveys, 80 percent of poor households have air conditioning; nearly two-thirds have cable or satellite television; half have a personal computer; 40 percent have a wide-screen HDTV. Three-quarters own a car or truck; nearly a third has two or more vehicles.
Ninety-six percent of poor parents state that their children were never hungry at any time during the year because they could not afford food. Some 82 percent of poor adults reported that they were never hungry at any time in the prior year.
As a group, poor children are far from being chronically undernourished. The average consumption of protein, vitamins, and minerals is virtually the same for poor and middle-class children, and in most cases is well above recommended norms.
Less than 2 percent of the poor are homeless. Only 10 percent live in a mobile home.
The average poor American lives in a house or apartment that is in good repair and not over-crowded. In fact, the average poor American has more living space than the typical non-poor individual living in Sweden, France, Germany or the United Kingdom.
Do these living conditions mean the War on Poverty was a success? Not really. When President Johnson launched the War on Poverty, he wanted to give the poor a “hand up, not a hand out.” He stated that his war would shrink welfare rolls and turn the poor from “taxeaters” into “taxpayers.” Johnson’s aim was to make poor families self-sufficient – able to rise above poverty through their own earnings without dependence on welfare.
The exact opposite happened. For a decade and a half before the War on Poverty began, self-sufficiency in American improved dramatically. But for the last 45 years, there has been no improvement at all. Many groups are less capable of self-support today than when Johnson’s war started.
The culprit is, in part, the welfare system itself, which discourages work and penalizes marriage. When the War on Poverty began, 7 percent of American children were born outside marriage. Today the number is 41 percent. The collapse of marriage is the main cause of child poverty today.
The welfare state is self-perpetuating. By undermining the social norms necessary for self-reliance, welfare creates a need for even greater assistance in the future. President Obama plans to spend $13 trillion over the next decade on welfare programs that will discourage work, penalize marriage and undermine self-sufficiency.
Rather than repeating the mistakes of the past we should return to Johnson’s original goal. Johnson sought to help the poor help themselves. He aimed to free the poor from the need for government aid, rather than to increase their dependence. That’s a vision worth recapturing.
Robert Rector is a senior research fellow in the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.