Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered his famous “War on Poverty” speech. Johnson’s purpose was “not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” His arsenal of anti-poverty programs meant to strike “at the causes, not just the consequences of poverty” by providing individuals “the opportunity to develop skills, continue education, and find useful work.” Johnson’s speech ushered in his Great Society programs, including food stamps, Head Start, and Medicaid. Many of these programs continue today, and numerous others have been added to the mix. Currently, the federal government operates roughly eighty means-tested welfare programs.
Though President Johnson insisted the idea was “opportunity and not doles,” the War on Poverty has not lived up to that ideal. Government may be able to provide material assistance, but it has failed to address the deeper causes of poverty. Worse, it has discouraged the most important defenses against poverty in America—work and marriage. A half-century after Johnson’s call to arms, it is time to redirect the response. Welfare programs should be reformed to restore those in need to self-sufficiency, rather than locking them in dependence on government.
Where We Are Today
The poverty rate today remains nearly as high as when LBJ launched the War on Poverty. A stubborn poverty rate, however, does not mean government welfare spending has had no effect. The approximately $20 trillion (adjusted for inflation) in government welfare spending over the last fifty years has no doubt boosted the material living standards of America’s poor. But it has done so while encouraging dependence, not helping those in need “to develop their own capacities,” as Johnson envisioned.
Part of the reason the poverty rate is nearly the same today as it was fifty years ago is that most welfare spending is not accounted for when measuring poverty. Measures of poverty exclude benefits from governmental assistance programs. Thus, the government’s poverty measure is not a good indicator of material living standards. However, it does provide a good indicator of the number of Americans reliant on government for subsistence. The poverty measure clearly shows that the rate of self-sufficiency has remained virtually unchanged since the beginning of the War on Poverty.
What have declined since the 1960s are the culture and institutions that guard against poverty by helping individuals succeed and families thrive. The two main defenses against poverty—work and marriage—have declined markedly in the past five decades.
The incentive structure of the welfare system has tended to make things worse when it comes to work and marriage. The vast majority of welfare programs fail to require work of able-bodied adults. Work requirements serve as a deterrent from getting on welfare in the first place and assist those who do need help to get back on their feet more rapidly. In addition, too many welfare programs include a marriage penalty, discouraging the strongest protector against child poverty.
These features of the welfare state have interacted with larger cultural dynamics heading in the wrong direction. Work participation among some segments of America has been trending downward for the last fifty years. Among working-class, able-bodied American men in the prime of their lives (30-49 years of age), levels of industriousness have declined, explains Charles Murray. For example, in 2008, 12 percent of prime-age men with a high-school education or less were “out of the labor force” in 2008, compared to just 3 percent in 1968. Among poor households with children, even in good economic times, the amount of work is low, with an average of 16 hours per week.
Family stability has also declined since the 1960s. Marriage is becoming rarer. In 1970, 90 percent of women and 80 percent of men between 25 and 29 years of age were married, whereas today only 50 percent and 40 percent are. More troublingly, over 40 percent of children are born outside of marriage annually, putting them at a significantly greater risk of poverty. Five decades ago, fewer than 10 percent of children were born to unmarried mothers. Unwed childbearing is not limited to low-income communities but is becoming common in working-class America as well.
The architects of the Great Society may have nobly intended to help individuals move toward self-sufficiency, but, in reality, its design does not accomplish that goal. Most programs act as one-way handouts that fail to motivate individuals to achieve self-sufficiency through work. The War on Poverty has failed America’s poor for decades, neglecting to encourage people to achieve their potential and contribute their talents to society. Advocates who seek to expand the welfare state seem to measure its success by the number of people receiving a benefit rather than by the number of individuals who are able to provide for themselves and subsequently move off welfare.
Today, welfare rolls grow as government-assistance programs multiply. US taxpayers spend approximately sixteen times as much on welfare (adjusting for inflation) as in LBJ’s day. Approximately eighty means-tested welfare programs provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to America’s poor and low-income populations. The federal government currently spends four times the amount necessary to pull every poor person out of poverty.
Yet supporters of government welfare suggest that the solution to poverty is more government assistance for more people. In recent years, government programs have sponsored food-stamp advertisements and other taxpayer-funded outreach strategies that unabashedly attempt to get anyone who may qualify onto the rolls. The aim of such efforts is not to increase opportunity by helping people move off food stamps and into steady employment—it’s just the opposite of Johnson’s intent.
If winning the War on Poverty were simply a matter of distributing material goods, government aid should have accomplished that goal by now. Rather than not spending enough, the problem is that policy has not taken into account the reality that fighting poverty does not simply mean reallocating material goods. It means helping those in need to escape government dependence and achieve self-sufficiency in the context of community.
Fighting poverty is undoubtedly complex. That’s why government welfare is limited in what it can do to protect against poverty. Government can dole out material aid, but when it comes to addressing the root causes of poverty, it has little ability to truly assist. Most poverty in America stems from deeper factors such as relational breakdown. These challenges do not find their solutions in a government check or a food-stamp card. Policy can provide a temporary safety net for those with no other place to turn, but the deeper causes of human poverty are best addressed by those closest to the person in need: family, friends, neighbors, churches, and other institutions of civil society. It is crucial that anti-poverty policy incentives promote individual well-being and responsibility without hindering the ability of those closest to the needy to help restore their lives, relationships, and communities.
Work and Marriage
The 1996 welfare reform provides a policy model built on such sound principles and incentives. That legislative effort transformed the largest government cash welfare program into a work activation program, called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). For the first time, able-bodied adult recipients were required to work, prepare for work, or look for work in exchange for receiving welfare aid.
After the 1996 reform, welfare rolls declined by half within about five years. Employment rates among low-income individuals increased, and child poverty declined, particularly for African American children, dropping to its lowest levels in US history.
Bob Woodson, founder of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which works with community groups by empowering those in need to overcome obstacles, tells the story of his niece and how welfare reform influenced her—and stopped undercutting his efforts to help her:
I had a niece who was in her 30s and had been on welfare for years. She was living with her child in one of the most dangerous public-housing projects in Philadelphia . . . . I spent thousands of dollars trying to help her relocate. I found an apartment for her in Arlington . . . and found a job for her. But when I went to pick her up, she was in a bathrobe with a beer in her hand in the middle of the afternoon. She couldn’t bring herself to make the move and leave the situation she had. My efforts to help her help herself couldn’t compete with the welfare system. In the system, she knew she had a place to live, no matter how dangerous, and she had food and day-care benefits.
It wasn’t until welfare reform became a reality that [my niece] changed. Welfare reform did what all of my efforts to persuade her could not do. It compelled her to go out and get a job. She had been on welfare for years and the only thing that interrupted that cycle was welfare reform.
The 1996 welfare reform, although an important success, transformed just one program. More recently, even those reforms have been weakened. Significant reform is needed to ensure that public assistance functions on the principle of self-sufficiency through work. The 1996 reforms should be restored. Furthermore, other programs, such as food stamps and public housing, should be restructured around incentives that encourage work among able-bodied adults.
Restoring a culture of marriage is also crucial. Children born and raised outside marriage are five times more likely to experience poverty than their peers in intact families. They also tend to face numerous other obstacles educationally, behaviorally, and relationally.
Policy should promote healthy marriage, not present an obstacle to it. Too many welfare programs include a marriage penalty. Policy reforms should aim to reduce such penalties. Similarly, policy can increase awareness about the significance of marriage for child outcomes and the resources for marriage education. A portion of TANF funding is set aside for such efforts, yet most states fail to use it for this purpose.
Two states, however, have experimented with marriage-strengthening efforts. Oklahoma and Utah have made resources available for marriage and relationship education to youth and couples who are at risk or already dependent on government services. Elsewhere, community marriage initiatives provide a model. First Things First in Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example, provides marriage education, operates public advertising campaigns on the importance of marriage, and holds community events for couples and families. More efforts like these are needed to strengthen the vitally important institution of marriage.
Today, the federal government has spent more on the War on Poverty than on all military wars in American history. We cannot afford another fifty years of policies and programs that fail to truly help America’s most vulnerable. Welfare must be based on principles that encourage the well-being of the individual. By promoting self-sufficiency through work and helping Americans in need to build and maintain healthy marriages, we can fight poverty and help provide a stable foundation for children, communities, and society as a whole.