Assessing the outcome of the War on Poverty — announced 50 years ago — has always been complicated by the hopes it initially inspired. After his election in 1964, Lyndon Johnson proclaimed that Americans were living in “the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem.” Which raised expectations pretty high — and placed LBJ in the manger. Elsewhere in the same vein, he said, “For the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty.”
The actual result — as in most complex endeavors — is mixed. Programs such as Medicare and Medicaid are woven tightly into the fabric of American life. Both are costly and need serious reform — and represent some of the most admirable, humane moral advances of the 20th century. The War on Poverty’s increase in Social Security benefits dramatically reduced poverty among the elderly, with few unintended social or behavioral consequences. Nutrition programs have fortified generations of children, while encouraging dependence on . . . food.
Other efforts, such as the expansion of Aid to Families with Dependent Children, became political shorthand for unintended social and behavioral consequences, leading a Democratic presidential candidate to promise an end to “welfare as we know it.” For decades, the federal role in improving education for low-income children was a resounding, embarrassing, scandalous failure. Some of LBJ’s ideas, such as Head Start, still seem so promising that we keep trying to get them right, even when social science finds modest results.
Political judgments on the War on Poverty are generally little more than an ideological Rorschach test. But beyond simple pronouncements of failure or success, a few things are clear: The federal government has met some human needs on a vast scale; it also does not know how to conquer poverty. The United States, at all levels of government, spent about $1 trillion on transfer programs last year, while more than 40 million people remain below the poverty line.
If you were making a judgment about the War on Poverty in, say, 1968, it would have seemed an unqualified success. A decline in the poverty rate seemed closely correlated with increasing expenditures. But progress quickly ran into economic and social obstacles that are not addressed by government payments. Advancing technology and globalization began draining the country of decent-paying, lower-skill jobs. Many American educational institutions proved incapable of imparting higher skills — or basic skills, for that matter. At the same time, social trends began undermining family structure and community health. (The tie between single-parent households and poverty is an economic, not a moral, assertion. Poor single parents naturally find it harder to hold full-time jobs and invest in the welfare of their children.)
This is a type of poverty that Johnson could not foresee: a decline in blue-collar jobs, rooted in global trends, requiring workers to gain skills that schools could not reliably impart, leaving whole communities economically depressed and isolated, while many children were deprived of economically stable and supportive two-parent families, leading to dangerously stalled social mobility and creating divisions of class that are inconsistent with the American ideal.
These problems — which reinforce and complicate each other — still require the effort and idealism of the War on Poverty. But the methods will need to be very different. Neither traditional safety-net programs nor economic growth alone is sufficient. A new (and hopefully renamed) War on Poverty would require improvements in labor markets — increasing the skills of workers and the rewards of work, and reaching many who are entirely alienated from the workforce. And it would require encouraging the norm of marriage before childbirth and catalyzing the work of community institutions (including religious nonprofits), which give people the skills and values to succeed in a free economy.
Note that a comprehensive effort would require flexibility on both sides of the ideological spectrum. For liberals, there is a difference between using social mobility as a unifying national goal and employing economic inequality as a political cudgel.
For conservatives, a preference for the work of markets and civil society can’t be used as an excuse for inaction when civil society is beleaguered and overwhelmed (in part) by powerful economic trends. Recent Republican anti-poverty initiatives have been rhetorically promising but substantively thin.
Yet given the seriousness of persistent poverty, any president, or aspiring president, must take the stage that LBJ mounted — and still dominates half a century later.