50 Years and Over $20 Trillion Later, How the War on Poverty Was Lost

ED-AR697_Rector_DV_20140107134254On 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.”

Fifty years later, we’re losing that war. Fifteen percent of Americans still live in poverty, according to the official census poverty report for 2012, unchanged since the mid-1960s. Liberals argue that we aren’t spending enough money on poverty-fighting programs, but that’s not the problem. In reality, we’re losing the war on poverty because we have forgotten the original goal, as LBJ stated it half a century ago: “to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities.”

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.

That is in part because the government’s poverty figures are misleading. Census defines a family as poor based on income level but doesn’t count welfare benefits as a form of income. Thus, government means-tested spending can grow infinitely while the poverty rate remains stagnant.

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