"We do this, first of all, because it is right that we should. We do it also because helping some will increase the prosperity of all. Our fight against poverty will be an investment in the most valuable of our resources — the skills and strength of our people. It strikes at the causes, not just the consequences of poverty."
Lyndon B. Johnson
Jan. 8, 1964
It was in Lyndon Johnson's first State of the Union address 50 years ago today that he proposed the "War on Poverty."
The War on Poverty was, as NPR observes, a personal thing for Johnson. He had been vice president under one of the wealthiest men ever to serve as president, but he had been brought up in poverty. He had known — firsthand — the "constant moments of humiliation ... and insecurity" of penury.
As Susan Page writes in USA Today, what followed was an "historic rush of legislation" — Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, food stamps.
It was a noble idea — still is, really, this idea of eliminating poverty. It was filled with good intentions, but, after half a century (or, since the Economic Opportunity Act wasn't really enacted until August 1964, nearly half a century), it is appropriate to ask a few questions about this war.
Like, what is (or was) the definition of victory?
We ask that of any conventional war that is proposed because we know a lot of money will be spent on it, but I cannot recall hearing such a definition expressed by any of the politicians who supported the legislation. Trillions of dollars have been spent in this war, but the poverty rate appears to be virtually unchanged since the legislation's passage.
At the time that Johnson proposed the War on Poverty, the poverty rate was in decline, falling from more than 22% in 1959 to around 19% in 1964. In its first year of existence, the Economic Opportunity Act may have contributed to the further decline of the poverty rate to around 15%, but it has leveled off and remained in that range ever since. At times, it has been a little lower, at other times it has been a little higher, but it has been consistent.
If the objective of the War on Poverty was to eliminate poverty, it has failed.
Victory (of a sort) probably could have been declared in 1965, but, after all these years, with the poverty rate remaining roughly the same, it would be hard to say the War on Poverty has been a success. In fact, it would be difficult to argue with Ronald Reagan's assertion that poverty won.
Bill Clinton famously declared 18 years ago that the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 "end[ed] welfare as we know it."
From the perspective of 2014, it is clear that welfare "as we [knew] it" did end at that time, but the beast wasn't slain. Not really. A much larger beast emerged to take its place.
Which brings me to another question:
Did the War on Poverty succeed?
I'm inclined to say "no" because poverty has not been eliminated. Even if one was willing to accept the idea that poverty will always be with us, that the idea of eliminating it entirely was unrealistic and that partial elimination of poverty was an acceptable outcome, the War on Poverty still came up short because it created new, unexpected problems.
But, of course, victory was never defined.
It would be wise for us as a nation to ask ourselves some hard questions. I assume that most of us would like to see the ills of the world eliminated — but we need to act responsibly, honestly evaluate what has been done so we can have an idea what works and what doesn't and then focus on those areas where further progress can be made.
We can't continue to act as if there is an unending supply of money to throw at our problems, not with the economy still as shaky as it was when the current administration took over five years ago.
If any attention had been paid to encouraging job creation and putting Americans back to work, there might be more of a revenue reserve in the federal coffers, but unemployment has been permitted to languish unattended so the prudent thing to do is to recognize the economic limitations we face and make realistic, if modest, goals if we are going to entertain the idea of pursuing LBJ's dream in the 21st century.
As contradictory as it sounds, we have to remember that there was more prosperity in America when the War on Poverty was enacted than there is now. When the War on Poverty was signed into law, one income was usually enough to support a family; within a decade, most families needed two incomes just to get by, and the absence of parental supervision when the children got home from school caused new social problems.
Today, two incomes are seldom sufficient to support a family, and the pattern is perpetuated.
The experience with the War on Poverty — indeed, the entire welfare concept — showed us that, as much as we might wish it were otherwise, most things in life are not simple. Most things in life are, in fact, complex, and they deserve to be studied carefully — even exhaustively — before the government intervenes on a large scale.
The nature of unintended consequences being what it is, it simply isn't possible to avoid them entirely, but, when such a significant objective is undertaken, it is important to try to anticipate as many as possible and minimize them.
One need look no further than Obamacare's implementation to find ample cause for caution.
Stephanie Coontz writes at CNN.com that the work isn't done. Coontz says the War on Poverty was "abandoned" by the politicians in the 1980s and that more could have been done.
Perhaps she is right. But, like it or not, there are limits to what can be done in the absence of an economic boom.