The Catastrophic War On Poverty

Fifty years ago, Lyndon Johnson launched the so-called "War on Poverty," and that anniversary has brought forth a number of recent assessments from both left and right.

I do make a practice of calling out government failures of many sorts, and certainly there are plenty to keep a person busy.  But could there possibly be anything approaching the catastrophe of the War on Poverty?  For example, just a few days ago I pointed to the substantial number of deaths resulting from the government's automobile mileage standards, and from delayed approvals of new drugs.  But still, most people are able to find and buy a satisfactory automobile; and many new drugs do eventually get through the pipeline and improve people's lives.  Government involvement in education has driven up the cost of college and burdened large numbers of young people with outrageous debt; but still, large numbers of young people do manage to get good educations and move on to productive lives.  Similar things can be said about government involvement in other areas, from agriculture to health care to energy --  everywhere the government's involvement has been a major negative, but somehow most individuals manage to get around the obstructions and muddle through.

And then we come to the War on Poverty.  The government declared the War in 1964.   Here is some rhetoric from Johnson's 1964 State of the Union message:

[O]ur joint federal-local effort must pursue poverty, pursue it wherever it exists—in city slums and small towns, in sharecropper shacks or in migrant worker camps, on Indian Reservations, among whites as well as Negroes, among the young as well as the aged, in the boom towns and in the depressed areas.  Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.

In the same year the government adopted a definition of "poverty" that makes poverty status turn on a particular level of annual cash income for a given family size.  Thus, by the government's own definition, "poverty" is purely a cash problem.  The government has then proceeded to spend fifteen or twenty or more (depending on how you count) trillions of dollars in a supposed effort to fix the "poverty," a number that is a multiple (approximately triple) of the amount that by the government's own definition would inherently completely end this purely cash problem.  And what has occurred?  The number of people in "poverty," as defined and measured by the government, has almost doubled.  It is an almost unimaginable disaster.

If you don't know that the number of people in "poverty" has almost doubled, it is probably because the government normally publishes its "poverty" statistics as a rate, that is, the percentage of the population that finds itself in "poverty" at any given time.  The figure you may have seen is the Census Bureau's "poverty rate," currently running at around 15+%.  Wikipedia has a helpful chart of Census Bureau "poverty" numbers from 1959 to present.  When they came up with the "poverty" definition in 1964, one of the first things they did was calculate what had happened to "poverty" as defined in the years immediately before.  And they calculated that the "poverty rate" had just gone down from about 22% in 1959 to about 15% in 1964.  With the start of supposed War, the previous rapid decline in the poverty rate abruptly ended.  Since 1964 the reported rate has drifted down to as low as about 11% at times, but right now is very near the same 15% where it was on the day the War began.  That's bad enough.  But the missing piece, of course, is that the population of the country has increased from about 192 million in 1964 to almost 320 million today.  And thus has the number of people "in poverty" gone from about 27 million in 1964 to about 47 million today.

And yet anti-poverty spending is currently running about $1 trillion per year if you count all expenditures at federal, state and local levels.  If you think about it, it's almost impossible to conceive of how you could spend that much money only to see the number of people in poverty double.  If you just passed the money out as cash, by the very definition the poverty would be cured; indeed, it would only take about a third of the money.   Instead, the main strategy is to pass out in-kind handouts -- public housing, food stamps, other nutrition programs, clothing programs, energy assistance, Medicaid -- and count none of it in the measure of "poverty."  And thus we get the worst of all possible worlds.  For an expenditure of double or triple what would be needed to end the poverty, we place the "beneficiary" population in the insulting and demeaning position of being able to consume only what their government overlords allow.  Would you rather have a smaller apartment and buy a car?  Too bad.  As a healthy twenty-something, would you rather forgo the lavish Medicaid health benefits and take a trip to California?  Tough luck.  A trillion dollars later -- and another trillion every year, year after year -- the supposed beneficiaries feel like they are still poor, and with good reason. 

Is it possible to defend the government's record on this issue?  I would say it can't be done with a straight face, but incredibly numerous leftists have used this 50th anniversary occasion to try.  For an example, check out this remarkable article by Dylan Matthews from January 8 in the Washington Post, titled "Everything you need to know about the war on poverty."  To show that the government anti-poverty programs are somehow working, Matthews first declares the government's own cash-income measure "completely meaningless."  This of course is the measure that the government has used to sell the gullible public on the anti-poverty spending in the first place.   Then Matthews shifts over to discussing something called the "supplemental" poverty measure (SPM), never mentioning that that is a new gizmo just come up with by the Obama administration in November 2012 to blunt criticism of the previous poverty measure, or that the SPM purports to measure "poverty" not as absolute deprivation, but rather as relatively low income, such that no amount of increased income for the poor can ever reduce the rate to near zero.  (Check out this article from Mickey Kaus at the Daily Caller on November 16, 2012 titled "MSM falls for "New coke" poverty con.")   Under the new measure, according to Matthews, "when you take government intervention into account, poverty is down considerably from 1967 to 2012, from 26 percent to 16 percent."  Fifty years and twenty trillion dollars, and with the poverty rate up from the 15% starting point no matter which way we count, let's just move the goal posts to wherever we like and declare success!