Fifty years ago this week, President Lyndon Johnson declared "unconditional war on poverty in America." American taxpayers have since spent more than $15 trillion on this conflict, employing everything short of the A-bomb, as the CATO Institute's Michael Tanner notes. Money is thrown with abandon at low-income assistance programs, from Section 8 housing to Head Start to Medicare and the Earned Income Tax Credit. There's little to show for the expenditure beyond a $17.3 trillion — that's with a 't' — national debt.
Johnson kicked off his war amidst a declining national poverty rate. By 1966, it was 14.7 percent, according to Census Bureau. Today, it's back at 15 percent. This is hardly a good result considering the 375 percent rise in federal welfare spending since 1965. Every year, $1 trillion is spread around on local, state and federal anti-poverty schemes, yet the poverty rolls remain as long as ever.
The only measurable result has been the collateral damage. Johnson's war ripped apart the nation's social fabric by effectively creating subsidies for single motherhood. Benefits are lavished on women who kick baby daddies out of the house. Compassionate-sounding they may be, these incentives have decimated nurturing family structures and doomed generations of children to fatherless lives. The Brookings Institute estimates that 3 percent of white and 24 percent of black infants were born out of wedlock in 1965. The figures soared to 18 percent and 64 percent by 1990. Today 40 percent of all babies are born to unmarried women.
Despite this dismal record of reality, President Obama celebrates institutional poverty's golden jubilee by "investing" millions more in "Promise Zones." The president will present this update to LBJ's order of battle in a speech later this week. He wants to rain federal money on five areas — San Antonio, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, southeastern Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma — to reduce poverty and income disparity. If the past is prologue, these will one day be known as "Broken Promise Zones."
Rather than rely on more Washington giveaways, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has a better idea. "The only solution that will achieve meaningful and lasting results," he says, "is to provide those who are stuck in low-paying jobs the real opportunity to move up to better-paying jobs." To make this happen, he would give states more flexibility to tailor anti-poverty efforts to meet specific needs of different regions of the country. Instead of paying people not to work, as is currently done, he would allow states to come up with more creative solutions to support job creation. The cure for poverty is not a government program, but a job.
Ronald Reagan used to say that compassion should be measured by the number of people taken off welfare, not the number put on the roll. The Gipper knew a thing or two about how to win a war.