Losing the War on Poverty

by Robert Maynard

Anyone who has been paying attention to the poverty trend in Amerca can see that we are losing the “War on Poverty.”  Instead of lifting people out of poverty, the welfare state has created a new permanent underclass trapped in a cycle of dependency.  In this article published by the Independent Institute, the failue to check poverty is analyzed and a way out of this multi-decade failure is pointed to:

Take a look at the graph below. From the end of World War II until 1964 the poverty rate in this country was cut in half. Further, 94% of the change in the poverty rate over this period can be explained by changes in per capita income alone. Economic growth is clearly the most effective antipoverty weapon ever devised by man.

The dotted line shows what would have happened had this trend continued. Economic growth would have reduced the number in poverty to a mere 1.4% of the population today.   A number so low that private charity could probably have taken care of any unmet needs.

But we didn’t continue the trend. In 1965 we launched a War on Poverty. And as the graph shows, in the years that followed the portion of Americans living in poverty barely budged. In 1965, 18% of the population lived in poverty. Today we are at 15%, or 50 million Americans. That’s after spending $15 trillion on antipoverty programs and continuing to spend $1 trillion a year.


Now here is something you may not know. Early on ? in the first decade of our 50-year experiment with an expanded welfare state ? carefully controlled experiments funded by the federal government established without question that welfare changes behavior. It leads to the very behavioral changes that keep people in a state of poverty and dependency. Think about that. Any serious social science debate about the effects of welfare on the behavior of the recipients was resolved four decades ago!

We now know a lot about how behavior affects poverty. In fact, if you do these four things, it’s almost impossible to remain poor:

1. Finish high school,
2. Get a job,
3. Get married, and
4. Don’t have children until you get married.

So how does welfare affect behavior? In the late 1960s the federal government sought to find that out in what Charles Murray calls “the most ambitious social science experiment in history.”

The experiments were all conducted by social scientists who believed in the welfare state and had no doubt about its capacity to be successful. In other words, they were confident of the answers before the experiments ever began. Their goal was to prove that popular wisdom was all wrong ? that welfare would not cause people to reduce their work effort, to get married less often, divorce more quickly or engage in other dysfunctional behavior.

The experiments were all controlled. Randomly selected people were assigned to a “control group” and an “experimental group.” The latter received a guaranteed income, and the program even used Milton Friedman’s term for it: a negative income tax. The largest, longest and best-evaluated of these experiments was SIME/DIME (Seattle Income Maintenance Experiment/Denver Income Maintenance Experiment) in Seattle and Denver. And the results were not pretty. To the dismay of the researchers, they largely confirmed what conventional wisdom had thought all along. As I reported in “Privatizing the Welfare State”:

  • The number of hours worked dropped 9% for husbands and 20% for wives, relative to the control group. For young male adults it dropped 43% more.
  • The length of unemployment increased 27% among husbands and 42% for wives, relative to the control group. For single female heads of households it increased 60% more.
  • Divorce increased 36% more among whites and 42% more among blacks. (In a New Jersey experiment, the divorce rate was 84% higher among Hispanics.)

One thought on “Losing the War on Poverty

  1. Pres. Obama may or may not have taught Constitutional Law, but he definitely taught Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals.” Alinsky theorized that the U.S. could be “transformed” by making its citizens dependent on their government. He further theorized that this could be more easily accomplished if our morality could be eroded.
    this leads me to think that we have been deliberately led down a path meant to destroy the Middle-Class.

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