When President Johnson launched the War on Poverty on Jan. 8, 1964, he pledged “not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” Sadly, the half-century legacy of Johnson’s Great Society has not lived up to that noble goal.
The War on Poverty has not done justice to the poor. Our responsibility to our neighbors in need demands more: a redirection of public policy and a commitment from each of us to do what we can in our own communities.
Despite spending nearly $20 trillion since the War on Poverty began, the poverty rate remains nearly as high today as it was in the mid-1960s. Today, government spends nearly $1 trillion annually on 80 federal means-tested programs providing cash, food, housing, medical care and targeted social services for poor and low-income Americans. Clearly, policymakers can’t hide behind reams of programs and billions in spending and declare they’ve done their duty to the poor. Good intentions aren’t enough.
We need to change the character of public assistance. That means redirecting incentives in federal welfare programs. “Sometimes those incentives encourage dependence, even for generations,” said Robert L. Woodson, Sr., founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, testifying before the Senate Budget Committee last year. Woodson sees firsthand the effects of these programs as he works with community leaders across the country to empower those in need to overcome adversity.
On the other hand, the right kind of incentives can “help people gain personal responsibility and pursue their dreams,” observes Woodson. Transforming incentives to promote personal responsibility has a dramatic effect: After the 1996 welfare reform began to require recipients to work or prepare for work, welfare rolls fell by more than half, and poverty rates among single mothers and black children fell to historic lows. But that reform redirected the incentives of only one program among more than 80 federal welfare programs.
As Woodson concludes:
So if we want to help those in need, we need to ask: Is the approach we are taking to relieve poverty by what we call the safety net actually helping or is it injuring with the helping hand?
In addition to promoting work, any serious effort on behalf of those in need must get serious about restoring marriage, America’s most important inoculation against child poverty. Children born and raised outside of marriage are more than five times more likely to experience poverty than their peers raised in intact families.
When the War on Poverty began, 8 percent of all children in America were born outside marriage. Since the mid-’60s, unwed childbearing has skyrocketed to more than 40 percent of all births, and from 25 percent to about 73 percent among black children.
Rebuilding a culture of marriage calls for policy reform to reduce marriage penalties in welfare programs. It also requires the kind of relational restoration that must happen on a personal level, through the work of churches and community initiatives like First Things First in Chattanooga, TN, that build relational skills. These and other efforts to overcome poverty should engage us personally in the effort to help restore lives, families, and communities.
Promoting work and restoring marriage “would be a better battle plan for eradicating poverty in America than spending more money on failed programs,” writes Heritage Senior Research Fellow Robert Rector in today’s Wall Street Journal, “And it would help accomplish LBJ’s objective to ‘replace their despair with opportunity.’”
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