It has been more than half a century since President Lyndon Johnson announced the War on Poverty, a vast expansion of the welfare state aimed at lifting up America’s poor.
Yet after three generations and tens of trillions of dollars, Americans who are born into poverty today are just as likely to remain stuck in poverty as they were when Lyndon Johnson made the issue a national priority in 1964. Fifty-two years later, it is time to admit that we have lost the war.
It is clear that we must rethink our approach to poverty if we are committed to every American having the right to pursue happiness.
This week, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced exactly that — a new poverty initiative from House Republicans that forms the beginning of a broad policy agenda to offer the American people this fall.
The proposal, A Better Way to Fight Poverty, is a bold, ambitious, and badly needed rethinking of the nation’s poverty programs.
Speaker Ryan’s proposal builds on a generation of conservative thinking about how best to deal with poverty, promote mobility and expand opportunity for all Americans.
In the 1980s, scholars like Marvin Olasky and Charles Murray helped make the case that the patchwork of bureaucracy, bad incentives and destructive culture which the left constructed had combined to trap far too many of our fellow citizens in poverty. Their books, “The Tragedy of American Compassion” and “Losing Ground,” respectively, explained how our sincere efforts to help the least well off had in fact made it more rather than less difficult for the poor to improve their lives.
It was based on these insights that we wrote the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, the core principle of which was that work must be at the center of social policy. No one should get something for doing nothing, and no one who can work should remain dependent on the government indefinitely. So we replaced the old maintenance welfare program, which was corroding the work ethic, destroying families by paying moms to be single, and trapping the poor in poverty, with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The new program offered a simple deal: during hard times, government will help for a limited time — but not forever, and only as long as you’re working or preparing to work.
Critics of the reform predicted it would lead to catastrophe — raising the specter of millions of children starving in the streets. The legendary Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who in the 1960s had been at the forefront of recognizing the destructive nature of the welfare state on families and individuals, said that the reform was the “most brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction.”
And yet, the Republican majorities in Congress had the courage to pass the reform. In fact, they did so three times. President Clinton vetoed it the first two times, and finally signed the historic legislation on the third.
It is fortunate that he did. Far from being brutal, the legislation proved to be the most successful social reform in recent history. The welfare rolls declined. Single mothers went to work. And as a result, the number of single mothers and children living in poverty declined dramatically.
Now, Speaker Ryan and the House Republicans propose to extend the same principles behind the successful 1996 reforms to a broad range of social programs. In many ways, the plan is revolutionary and impressive in scope. It promises to expand opportunity for an entire segment of Americans who have been failed by the bureaucracy.
The Ryan plan is built around five pillars: rewarding work, matching benefits to individual needs, improving skills and schools, making it easier to save for the future, and insisting on evidence and results.
These principles lead to a number of creative ideas. For instance, the plan would extend the work requirement to federal housing programs, since there is evidence that more than 40 percent of those receiving rental assistance who could work actually don’t. In addition, the proposal would also strengthen or institute work incentives for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as well as TANF, among other entitlements.
The plan would give states more flexibility to link and coordinate programs to help them more effectively tailor benefits to the needs of individuals in their communities.
Speaker Ryan’s plan also includes innovative new approaches to how we pay for poverty programs, such as public-private partnerships in which government pays for success and shuts down programs that don’t work. This would allow private-sector organizations to develop their own social programs that would only be reimbursed by taxpayers if they actually succeeded in their goals. After $22 trillion spent on federal poverty programs that have fundamentally failed to raise people out of poverty, this is a novel concept and a long overdue injection of accountability.
A Better Way to Fight Poverty includes still more good ideas: modernizing Pell Grants, reforming child nutrition programs, reforming housing assistance, and rolling back burdensome regulations that make it hard for poor Americans to get banking services.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump expressed this week his commitment to rebuilding opportunity for all Americans, including America’s poor, and that he would seek to work with Speaker Ryan to do so. As one of the boldest and most thoughtful policy proposals in recent memory, Speaker Ryan’s plan is a real sign of hope.
With 50 million Americans living in poverty, the task is certainly urgent. All of us, Republicans and Democrats, owe it to our fellow citizens in poverty to rethink what we have been doing for so long, with such discouraging results.
Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
Click to Read More and View Comments
Click to Hide
Please read our comment policy before commenting.