War on poverty needs new strategy

Article Highlights

  • 30% of America’s single-parent households live below the poverty line, whereas only 5% of married families do.

    Tweet This

  • Today, 52% of American adults are married, whereas just a half-century ago, 72% were.

    Tweet This

  • Since 1964 we have spent nearly $20T on means-tested wealth transfers & other fed initiatives designed to curb poverty.

    Tweet This

Fifty years ago today, Lyndon B. Johnson stood before the U.S. Congress and, in his State of the Union address, declared, “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.”

A half-century later, how are we to evaluate the War on Poverty? What are its most decisive victories, its defeats, and its path forward?

A Sunday New York Times article paints a reasonably accurate picture, noting that the U.S. poverty rate has fallen from 19 percent to 15 percent in two generations: not a complete failure, but hardly a definitive success. Of course, not only are there multiple ways to measure poverty, but in times like these, anti-poverty programs keep American families from otherwise becoming categorized as “poor”: food stamps (4 million additional Americans would otherwise dip below poverty line), the Earned Income Tax Credit (6 million), and unemployment insurance, to name just a few.

But by far, the Great Society’s largest victory has been for the elderly: after Medicare’s creation in the 1960s, the poverty rate for older Americans has fallen from 35 percent in 1959 to just 9 percent.

On the other hand, the costs of this “war” have been enormous—both economically and culturally. Since 1964 we have spent nearly $20 trillion on means-tested wealth transfers and other federal initiatives designed to curb poverty. This sum exceeds the size of our national debt, and surpasses an entire year’s GDP.

As Florida Senator Marco Rubio asserts, given this level of massive spending, victory eludes us not only because “the poor are still with us,” but also because steady, ongoing economic assistance can lead to badly unintended consequences.  

Since LBJ’s War on Poverty was first launched, America has witnessed an unprecedented rise in cohabitation, divorce, and out-of-wedlock births. Today, 52 percent of American adults are married, whereas just a half-century ago, 72 percent were.

Though it would be silly to suggest that the War on Poverty caused these changes, we must look more clearly than we do at the inverse impact of changing family structure on productive work and a flourishing economy.

It’s All in the Family

In fact, the cultural and family consequences run deep—and here’s where the argument gets more complicated. Consider that, today, 30 percent of America’s single-parent households live below the poverty line, whereas only 5 percent of married families do.

Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution says that, “To mount an effective war against poverty, we need changes in the personal decisions of more young Americans.”

He is right. Studies increasingly show that, for children, the best family environment is to be raised by two biological parents who are married—on virtually any measure: the quality of the mother-infant relationship, adolescent delinquency, school dropout rates, early mortality, emotional health, or childhood injury. A 2010 “fragile families” study by Princeton University found that “children born to unmarried parents did not fare as well as children born to married parents,” and more recently, Scott Winship and Don Schneider found that family structure influences income mobility more than many other factors.

While it is complicated to incentivize responsible fatherhood and two-parent families rather than subsidizing out-of-wedlock births, this goal should become a hallmark of new anti-poverty efforts in 2014 and beyond.

Unfortunately, however, American families are heading  the wrong way: in 2012, for women under age 30, births outside marriage became “the new normal.” For the first time, more than half of U.S. twenty-something or teenage mothers giving birth were unmarried—a stunning turnaround from 1970, when 80 percent of 29-year-olds had married.

Since 1964 we have spent nearly $20 trillion on means-tested wealth transfers and other federal initiatives designed to curb poverty.

This can become a tragic, self-perpetuating cycle, especially in communities where father absence has become commonplace. In the African American community today, 72.3 percent of children are born outside wedlock. Among American Indians, 65.1 percent of children are born to unmarried mothers, and among Hispanic Americans, that figure is 51.3 percent. As this map illustrates, today between 20 percent and 50 percent of kids in each U.S. state are raised in single-parent families.

Rethinking Victory?

The fact is, poverty is not merely a material problem. A half-century after the dawn of the War on Poverty, we would be well-served if President Obama addressed the American public on the cultural aspects of poverty. Given his unique story, and perhaps more than any president since LBJ, Obama could use his powerful bully pulpit to promote healthy, two-parent families. Though he has spoken about fatherhood in the past, his administration could do far, far more.

Americans truly interested in serving the poor more effectively will do well to recall this insight, from the late theologian Herman Bavinck:

For children are the glory of marriage, the treasure of parents, the wealth of family life. They develop within their parents an entire cluster of virtues, such as … devotion and self-denial, care for the future, involvement in society, the art of nurturing. With their parents, children place restraints upon ambition [and] as with living mirrors they show their parents their own virtues and faults, force them to reform themselves, mitigating their criticisms and teaching them how hard it is to govern a person. The family exerts a reforming power upon the parents … [transforming] ambition into service, miserliness into munificence, the weak into strong, cowards into heroes, coarse fathers into mild lambs, tenderhearted mothers into ferocious lionesses.

Our current anti-poverty policy wrongly allows young men to impregnate young women and walk away, because teenage moms—aided by the state—can raise children without present fathers. As a result, the challenging, wonderful gift of family life described above is rescinded.    

Culturally, we are wrong to provide perpetual relief, in the name of compassion, when development is what is needed. Single mothers and rootless fathers require not more material relief but job training, purposeful education, life-skills coaching, and, most of all, personal investment from trustworthy individuals who can mentor and instill different habits. The truth is that only the free market backed by stronger civil society can lift people out of poverty in a sustainable way.

If President Obama really wants to set us on a course to greater income mobility, he could confront head-on the problem of father absence, perhaps in his January 28 State of the Union address. But instead, after $20 trillion in real spending on the War on Poverty, I anticipate we’ll hear a public call for still more federal spending aimed at aiding “our neediest citizens,” or overcoming income inequality through new government-led reforms.

Taken together, a vast web of federal programs—from disability to TANF (welfare) to food stamps to nearly 80 other means-tested initiatives—foster a safety net that entangles many of our fellow citizens, rather than offering a hand-up in time of need. This also leads to “corporate statism,” in that far too many federal contracts are written for industry contractors in Washington, rather than for the children and families they purport to help.

On its golden anniversary, our War on Poverty needs to renew its vows but with a decidedly new kind of commitment. Through deliberative, rigorous analysis of means-tested programs, we should move toward reforms that promote personal dignity, incentivize father involvement, and encourage work.

With President Obama's experience of the pain of father absence and the unique joys of family life, perhaps he is just the man to end this “war.”

Josh Good is the program manager for the Values & Capitalism initiative at the American Enterprise Institute.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine
About the Author



What's new on AEI

Rebuilding American defense: A speech by Governor Bobby Jindal
image Smelling liberal, thinking conservative
image Stopping Ebola before it turns into a pandemic
image All too many reasons for pessimism about Europe
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 20
  • 21
  • 22
  • 23
  • 24
Monday, October 20, 2014 | 2:00 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Warfare beneath the waves: The undersea domain in Asia

We welcome you to join us for a panel discussion of the undersea military competition occurring in Asia and what it means for the United States and its allies.

Event Registration is Closed
Tuesday, October 21, 2014 | 8:30 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.
AEI Election Watch 2014: What will happen and why it matters

AEI’s Election Watch is back! Please join us for two sessions of the longest-running election program in Washington, DC. 

Event Registration is Closed
Wednesday, October 22, 2014 | 1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m.
What now for the Common Core?

We welcome you to join us at AEI for a discussion of what’s next for the Common Core.

Thursday, October 23, 2014 | 10:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.
Brazil’s presidential election: Real challenges, real choices

Please join AEI for a discussion examining each candidate’s platform and prospects for victory and the impact that a possible shift toward free-market policies in Brazil might have on South America as a whole.

No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.