The failure of the ‘War On Poverty’

In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Robert Rector illustrates how the government can screw up almost any program, no matter how well-intentioned.  In this case, it’s the half-century-old ‘War On Poverty‘.  Here’s an excerpt.

On Jan. 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson used his State of the Union address to announce an ambitious government undertaking. “This administration today, here and now,” he thundered, “declares unconditional war on poverty in America.”

. . .

The federal government currently runs more than 80 means-tested welfare programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care and targeted social services to poor and low-income Americans. Government spent $916 billion on these programs in 2012 alone, and roughly 100 million Americans received aid from at least one of them, at an average cost of $9,000 per recipient. (That figure doesn’t include Social Security or Medicare benefits.) Federal and state welfare spending, adjusted for inflation, is 16 times greater than it was in 1964. If converted to cash, current means-tested spending is five times the amount needed to eliminate all official poverty in the U.S.

LBJ promised that the war on poverty would be an “investment” that would “return its cost manifold to the entire economy.” But the country has invested $20.7 trillion in 2011 dollars over the past 50 years. What does America have to show for its investment? Apparently, almost nothing: The official poverty rate persists with little improvement.

. . .

To judge the effort, consider LBJ’s original aim. He sought to give poor Americans “opportunity not doles,” planning to shrink welfare dependence not expand it. In his vision, the war on poverty would strengthen poor Americans’ capacity to support themselves, transforming “taxeaters” into “taxpayers.” It would attack not just the symptoms of poverty but, more important, remove the causes.

By that standard, the war on poverty has been a catastrophe. The root “causes” of poverty have not shrunk but expanded as family structure disintegrated and labor-force participation among men dropped. A large segment of the population is now less capable of self-sufficiency than when the war on poverty began.

There’s more at the link (the article may be behind a paywall, in which case, see here).  You can also read more at the Heritage Foundation.

This is a repellent yet fascinating illustration of how bureaucratic inertia and organizational rigidity have condemned generations of Americans to misery and hopelessness.  If we want to win the ‘War On Poverty’, my immediate suggestion is to remove it from government control.  That’ll be a good start!



  1. Back then LBJ's(and the demo's) "WAR ON POVERTY" had NOTHING to do with poverty and EVERYTHING to do with buying votes from a certain group.

  2. Not meaning to disparage our military, but since the LBJ days – heck, since WWII – is there a war on anything that we have won?

  3. LBJ should have left war alone it doesn't seem to have been his thing. He would have succeeded had he declared a war on poverty in North Vietnam and ruined their country instead of ours.

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