War on Poverty will fail without restructuring

War on Poverty will fail without restructuring (credit: Maegha Singh/) War on Poverty will fail without restructuring (credit: Maegha Singh/)
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It quietly slipped by, unnoticed, lost in the turmoil of the ISIS crisis — the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” speech. Fifty years ago, Johnson verbally recognized the problem of cyclical poverty and, in addition to giving the issue national attention, he started several means-tested welfare programs designed to turn what he called “taxeaters” into “taxpayers.” In other words, the War on Poverty was supposed to help people achieve self-sustenance, welfare programs would eventually be phased out, and prosperity would be achieved.

Since the war on poverty started, America has spent $22 trillion on means-tested welfare programs in constant 2012 dollars. Yet we’ve made minimal progress. When LBJ left office in 1969, the poverty rate sat at about 13 percent; Now it’s 15 percent.
It seems impossible that we can spend $22 trillion over 50 years and still have 15 percent of the country living in poverty. That’s because it actually is impossible. According to a recent Heritage Foundation report, 75 percent of those deemed to be living in poverty have a car. Thirty one percent of the impoverished have two cars, two-thirds have cable TV, more than half have video game systems, and 40 percent have wide-screen LCD TVs.

When we think about poverty, we think about not having enough food to feed a family or sustain one’s own health. We think about homelessness and the kind of material deprivation that nobody in a country as wealthy as the United States should have to face. Turns out, only two percent of those in poverty are homeless, and, according to the Department of Agriculture, impoverished children and upper-middle class children have an identical intake of protein and vitamins. The overwhelming majority of those in poverty reported that they were not hungry for a single day during the prior year.

Though there are people in this country who do face the type of material deprivation we associate with poverty, the problem isn’t as widespread as we think — the 15 percent figure is certainly misleading. That $22 trillion that we’ve spent on eradicating poverty has actually just bolstered the lifestyles of those with yearly earnings that place them in the impoverished income bracket.
If that’s a decision that we want to make, then that’s one thing, but such raw wealth redistribution seems to intuitively run counter to the American ethos. As LBJ originally described the War on Poverty, the goal was to turn “taxeaters” into “taxpayers.” By that measure, the War on Poverty has failed miserably. We have a nearly identical percentage of the country in the impoverished income bracket, and welfare spending in chained 2012 dollars is now 20 times what it was when LBJ left office.

Fortunately, we already spend a lot of money on these means-tested welfare programs. Rather than gutting the programs or looking for more funding, all we have to do to fix this issue is restructure the administration of these resources. That way they can help people become self-sufficient. There are all kinds of plausible ideas for welfare programs out there, many of which are now suggesting that local governments would be best equipped to handle the war on poverty, as they’re intimately familiar with the problems of their constituents.

To reflect this at a policy level, the federal government would restructure means-tested welfare spending as a state grant. States that opt in would be given the federal money that would have gone toward traditional means-tested welfare programs. The states would then experiment and see which anti-poverty measures work best.

Similar plans have been suggested in the past, and while they haven’t been perfect, they still came close to achieving the original aims of the War on Poverty. In order to actually lift people up into true, self-ordained prosperity, we need to restructure federally appointed welfare spending. Hopefully the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty will give us cause to reflect on the past and commit to positive change for the future.