Oklahoma Watch invited researchers from two Oklahoma think tanks — the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and the Oklahoma Policy Institute — to offer their views on the theme, “The ‘War on Poverty:’ Success or Failure?’”
We must stay committed to the ‘War on Poverty’
By Gene Perry
Policy Director, Oklahoma Policy Institute
In 1967, poverty researcher Peter Edelman visited some of the poorest communities in America. He was shocked by what he found. Mechanization had eliminated agriculture jobs across the South, and families were left with no source of income and no safety net to protect them from hunger and severe malnutrition. Edelman saw children with bellies distended by famine and sores that wouldn’t heal.
Edelman was on the front lines of the “War on Poverty,” which President Lyndon Johnson launched 50 years ago this month. Johnson sought to end poverty’s “wastage of resources and human lives.” To do this, the President and Congress expanded education and jobs programs, enacted ongoing nutrition assistance, and created Medicare and Medicaid to ensure access to health care for seniors and the very poor.
In the years since, both Democratic and Republican administrations have strengthened some important strands of the safety net. The earned income tax credit, which helps families earning low wages make ends meet, was established under President Nixon and expanded under Presidents Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Clinton. President Obama temporarily expanded the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and unemployment insurance during the Great Recession.
That brings us to today. Fifty years after President Johnson took on the challenge, much has improved for the poorest Americans. Although many families still struggle to put enough food on the table, we don’t see the kind of mass hunger that existed before the modern food stamp program. Almost twice as many Americans would be living in poverty today if not for the safety net developed by President Johnson and his successors.
We’ve made progress, but the struggle isn’t over. More than 500,000 Oklahomans are still living in poverty, according to the most recent data. It’s especially troubling that poverty is at its highest among families with children younger than five years old.
Unfortunately, some critics want to move us in the wrong direction by cutting away at the safety net. They cite the official poverty rate, which is nearly the same as fifty years ago, as evidence that public services like SNAP and Medicaid are not reducing poverty.
This argument misses some key facts. First, the official poverty rate only considers cash income before taxes, so it leaves out the biggest safety net programs — SNAP, health insurance, and the earned income tax credit. Counting these benefits as income and adjusting for the cost of living creates a more accurate picture. A recently developed “Supplemental Poverty Measure” that takes these factors into account shows the poverty rate dropped to 16 percent in 2012 from 26 percent in 1967.
Another factor that critics of the War on Poverty overlook is that many Americans are still being left out from the benefits of economic growth. Two years after the Great Recession officially ended, more than 10 million Americans had jobs but still lived in poverty. Many more earned just enough to be one health crisis or layoff away from poverty. These “working poor” Americans include many restaurant workers, construction workers and caregivers in nursing homes and child care centers.
Wages for these workers have stagnated for decades, even though the economy as a whole has grown and a huge amount of wealth has flooded up to the top earners. We need to do more through education, science and infrastructure investment, stronger workplace protections and a higher minimum wage to secure an economy that works for everyone who wants to work. We don’t have that economy today, so the safety net is needed now more than ever.
Fortunately, the days of American famine are behind us. We must stay committed to the War on Poverty to make sure those days don’t return.
The War on Poverty fails because it ignores that man is more than his material needs
By Tina Korbe Dzurisin
Research Associate, Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs
Fifty years after President Lyndon B. Johnson launched his “War on Poverty,” the government has spent about $20 trillion on federal and state welfare programs, but the poverty rate has barely budged – from about 19 percent in 1964 to 15 percent today.
Nevertheless, the U.S. poor of the 2010s enjoy a much higher standard of living than did the U.S. poor of the 1960s.
According to Heritage Foundation scholars Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, the typical poor person in America has considerably more living space than does the average European. About 93 percent of poor households assert they always have “enough food to eat,” although 26 percent say they do not always have the foods they prefer. The overwhelming majority of poor households own refrigerators, televisions and cell phones – amenities our great-grandparents, whatever their socioeconomic status, did not have.
This higher standard of living is not captured by the relatively unchanged poverty rate, however, because the bureaucrats who calculate that rate ignore welfare benefits in their calculations.
Still, the poverty rate remains an important measure of the success or failure of the War on Poverty. While it might not tell us exactly how many Americans are truly destitute, it does give us a sense of how many Americans are not earning enough to provide the standard American lifestyle for themselves and their families out of their own income.
Human flourishing is not defined solely by what we have. A person who has more in the way of material things is not necessarily flourishing more than a person who has less, and vice versa. How we acquire what we have matters, too.
Those who aim to eradicate poverty through government transfers of wealth miss this truth. While welfare benefits improve material living conditions, they deny recipients the dignity of earned success, of a sense of themselves as human persons with irreplaceable contributions to make.
As American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks often repeats, earned success is strongly correlated with happiness, just as unearned transfers of wealth are correlated with a lack of happiness.
Going on the welfare rolls increases by 16 percent the likelihood of a person saying he or she has felt inconsolably sad over the past month (even after controlling for poverty and unemployment). Similarly, low-income married couples who receive government assistance report lower levels of marital commitment and satisfaction than low-income married couples who do not receive government assistance.
The War on Poverty will fail as long as those who wage it reduce the human person to his material needs. When, however, they acknowledge the fundamental need of the human person to give of himself in voluntary community to earn his own success, they will be able to identify more appropriate methods by which to alleviate the suffering of those who are poor.
The promotion of marriage must necessarily be among those methods. A child with married parents is 80 percent less likely to live in poverty than the child of unmarried parents.
The promotion of work, worship and a robust civil society, all of which have been linked to increased economic mobility, will also be important. Within that civil society, an increase in private charity and a resurgence of gift-giving among neighbors would mitigate material hardship while simultaneously enhancing personal relationships and creating “a culture of encounter.”
As Brooks put it, “Defending a healthy culture of family, community and work does not mean imposing an alien ‘bourgeois’ morality on others. It is to recognize what people need to be happy and successful — and what is most missing today in the lives of too many poor people.”