- - Sunday, May 10, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

When blacks marched on Washington to hear the historic “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr., they were pressing for a society that looked very much like that in which they already lived — a society built on freedom; a society that protected life, liberty and the pursuits of happiness among its citizens. Many of those freedoms and protections had not been extended to blacks of course and so they came to Washington to “cash a check” (to paraphrase King) that would cover the remainder of their birthright as U.S. citizens.

What blacks got when they cashed that check was not their birthright. Of course the right to vote was formally recognized and began to be slowly enforced. But Washington’s main thrust was to try and paper over the decades of pain and oppression suffered by blacks with a shiny new toy — the Great Society.

The program offered to cure all the ills of black America with government entitlements — Food Aid, housing assistance, Medicare, a variety of educational enrichment programs, and the like. It promised a glorious path for Americans (black Americans especially) out of poverty and into the middle class. Those were the glory days of America. With a large industrial base and a growing economy, it seemed as if authorizing major new spending programs designed to deal with intractable social problems just might be the key to maintaining racial harmony and achieving the social justice sought by King and others.

Fifty years later, that experiment has finally earned a retrospective. Looking back on it, we should have seen as a nation that the Great Society could not have been a permanent solution and might even be detrimental to America’s growth. The programs began to grow and expand as more and more citizens got involved. For far too many, Johnson-era anti-poverty programs became more of a permanent dependency rather than a lift out of poverty. In a perverse way, the Great Society helped to further entrench some of the social problems that gave rise to it. And as U.S. population growth slowed, its other flaws began to reveal themselves.



One of those problems is that the programs became a political patronage strategy for successive generations of politicians. Any time they wanted to secure a part of the American electorate, they would campaign on expanding federal spending to cover some new area — whether that was prescription drug coverage, expanded Head Start, a new jobs program. But between new programs, slowing population growth, and an aging population, we inadvertently created the almost impossible budget situation we face today.

Today those social programs have grown from a minuscule proportion of the GDP (initial great society programs cost a mere $2 billion), to an amount so onerous that we now have to borrow funds (great peril to our future stability) in order to fulfill current obligations. When we look at the countries around the world that have put themselves in this situation, Greece comes foremost to mind. Greece got caught up in the transition to the Euro and essentially turned its government into a national piggy bank, from which funds were extracted but not put in place. Once the easy money stopped in 2007, Greece found itself in the impossible situation of being unable to service even the interest on its debt, sending the government into bankruptcy and the society into a chaotic downward spiral.

Economic charlatans such as Paul Krugman argue in essence that America can (and perhaps should) run over 100 percent budget deficits ad infinitum. The one major assumption upon which that snake-oil business depends is that the U.S. currency continues to serve as the world’s reserve currency, and that lenders will continue to fund our extravagant spending forever. That is a very shaky assumption indeed upon which to base such rash financial management.

But more importantly, the programs themselves have not worked as intended. The inner cities are still a mess; poverty is still a major problem; public education continues its shameful underserving of America’s children; and the housing crisis is worse than ever in some cities, where lack of available and affordable housing is increasingly putting poor people further and further away from jobs. And health care has become the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Health care spending still constitutes almost a fifth of GDP and Americans are still overspending for government-run health care.

It would be one thing if the costs of government paternalism were high but beneficial. And even in that scenario we would have to look to make the system more efficient. But unfortunately, for too many, the costs have been high but the benefits fleeting at best. To be 50 years later still faced with chronic undereducation, social marginalization and a concentration of poverty in the face of receding government entitlements is truly a scary place.

Armstrong Williams is sole owner/manager of Howard Stirk Holdings and executive editor of American CurrentSee online magazine.

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