The War on Poverty: failure redefined as success

On the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation posted a devastating after-action report pronouncing it “a colossal flop” at the Daily Signal:

Since its beginning, U.S. taxpayers have spent $22 trillion on Johnson’s War on Poverty (in constant 2012 dollars). Adjusting for inflation, that’s three times more than was spent on all military wars since the American Revolution.

The federal government currently runs more than 80 means-tested welfare programs. These programs provide cash, food, housing and medical care to low-income Americans. Federal and state spending on these programs last year was $943 billion. (These figures do not include Social Security, Medicare, or Unemployment Insurance.)

Over 100 million people, about one third of the U.S. population, received aid from at least one welfare program at an average cost of $9,000 per recipient in 2013. If converted into cash, current means-tested spending is five times the amount needed to eliminate all poverty in the U.S.

And yet, the poverty rate remains chiseled in stone, unmoved after that $22 trillion in spending. As Rector notes, the number of people officially classified as impoverished has actually gotten worse while the War on Poverty ground on. He published his article right before the official Census numbers came out, but he was right on the nose in guessing that the poverty rate would remain fixed at around 14 percent. To be specific, it chugged in at 14.5 percent, prompting Tim Worstall at Forbes to elaborate on a point Rector raises in his piece: isn’t it literally impossible for poverty to remain unmoved after the expenditure of $22 trillion? No matter how badly Big Government bungles administration of the welfare state, all that dough had to go somewhere, right?

We spend near $1 trillion a year on sending things and money to the poor and that really should push some large number of those poor families over our line. But it seems that it doesn’t: so, why?

Because, would you believe it, we don’t actually count most of the money that we give to the poor as being incomes to the poor. Weird but entirely true. We have roughly, in order of size, four large programs to alleviate poverty. Medicaid, the EITC, SNAP (food stamps) and Section 8 housing vouchers. There’s a vast raft of smaller programs following on as well. And almost all of them give things (health …read more    

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