The war on poverty has failed; 50 years after President Johnson declared it, and trillions of dollars later, almost 50 million Americans live in poverty – more than ever in our history.
The ‘safety-net’ ought to rescue people who have fallen into poverty. Instead, it’s become a snare that entraps many in dependence and creates perverse incentives for them to remain in conditions that make their escape unlikely.
Programs that ought to be judged by how many they lift out of poverty are instead judged by how many become eligible for government benefits.
What’s been called the poverty industry – the complex of laws, programs and poverty workers – has proved, perversely, to be a growth industry; it has produced more poverty than ever and as the poor population has grown – so has the ‘need’ for more poverty workers – more government jobs for people who work with the poor and too few poor people with jobs of their own in the real economy.
Right Way conservatives believe poverty in America can be addressed more effectively. The war on poverty’s top down, federal-government-knows-best approach has been wasteful, poverty-perpetuating and counter-productive. The dire predictions about welfare reform – that, required to work, the poor would fail, exhaust their benefits and end up worse off than ever – proved wrong. They underestimated the capacity of many poor people to overcome their poverty.
It is possible to imagine a new approach – anti-poverty efforts that rely more on that capacity and attack poverty from the inside out and from the grassroots up. Such an approach wouldn’t eradicate poverty altogether but it could move the needle significantly and in a more positive direction than our Fifty Years War has moved it.
- On education, choice would give poor parents options only more affluent parents presently enjoy.
- On public housing, tenant ownership has shown the capacity of the poor to manage their own affairs.
- On addiction, private, usually faith-based treatment, has transformed the lives of addicts cost-effectively and more successfully than government’s.
- In general, block granting some programs back to the states would also allow for more flexibility and innovation to try these and other new approaches.
Finally, while we don’t have to dismantle the whole federal anti-poverty edifice, we ought to re-emphasize character and community and de-emphasize regulation and bureaucracy.