NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

War on Poverty at 50 -- Despite Trillions Spent, Poverty Won

January 9, 2014

Fifty years ago this week, President Lyndon Johnson delivered his first State of the Union address, promising an "unconditional war on poverty in America." Looking at the wreckage since, it's not hard to conclude that poverty won. But if we are losing the War on Poverty, it certainly isn't for lack of effort, says Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

  • In 2012, the federal government spent $668 billion to fund 126 separate antipoverty programs.
  • State and local governments kicked in another $284 billion, bringing total antipoverty spending to nearly $1 trillion.
  • That amounts to $20,610 for every poor person in America, or $61,830 per poor family of three.

Spending on the major antipoverty programs increased in 2013, pushing the total even higher.

  • Over, the last 50 years, the government spent more than $16 trillion to fight poverty.
  • Yet today, 15 percent of Americans still live in poverty.
  • That's scarcely better than the 19 percent living in poverty at the time of Johnson's speech.
  • Nearly 22 percent of children live in poverty today. In 1964, it was 23 percent.

How could we have spent so much and achieved so little? The entire concept behind how we fight poverty is wrong. The vast majority of current programs are focused on making poverty more comfortable rather than giving people the tools that will help them escape poverty.

It would make sense therefore to shift our antipoverty efforts from government programs that simply provide money or goods and services to those who are living in poverty, to efforts to create the conditions and incentives that will make it easier for people to escape poverty.

And what would such a policy look like? Tanner lists three keys to getting out of and/or staying out of poverty: (1) finish school; (2) do not get pregnant outside marriage; and (3) get a job and stick with it.

  • An effective War on Poverty would reform our failed school system to encourage competition and choice.
  • We should also recognize that too many of our current welfare programs actually subsidize out-of-wedlock birth.
  • Finally, we should end government policies -- high taxes and regulatory excess -- that inhibit growth and job creation. Fewer than 3 percent of full-time workers are poor, compared to nearly 25 percent for those without a job.

Source: Michael D. Tanner, "War on Poverty at 50 -- Despite Trillions Spent, Poverty Won," FOX News, January 8, 2014.


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