Why the War on Poverty Failed

By Payne, James L. | Freeman, January 1999 | Go to article overview

Why the War on Poverty Failed


Payne, James L., Freeman


Well, it's now official: the war on poverty was a costly, tragic mistake. Ordinary people have suspected that for decades, of course, but we had to wait for the New York Times to decide this news was fit to printwhich it finally did on February 9, 1998. In a front-page story on poverty in rural Kentucky, Michael Janofsky detailed the failure of this effort in the one region that was supposed to be the centerpiece of reform. "Federal and state agencies have plowed billions of dollars into Appalachia," he wrote, yet the area "looks much as it did 30 years ago, when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty, taking special aim at the rural decay."1

Janofsky visited Owsley County, Kentucky, and found a poverty rate of over 46 percent, with over half the adults illiterate and half unemployed. "Feelings of hopelessness have become so deeply entrenched," he reported, "that many residents have long forsaken any expectation of bettering themselves." For years, the government has been trying to treat the despair with welfare programs: two-thirds of the inhabitants receive federal assistance, including food stamps, AFDC, and SSI disability payments. This, it now appears, is part of the area's problems.

"The war on poverty was the worst thing that ever happened to Appalachia," Janofsky quotes one resident as saying. "It gave people a way to get by without having to do any work." Local officials told him that "many parents urge their children to try to go to special education classes at school as a way to prove they are eligible for [SSI] disability benefits." (The senior class at the local high school picked as its motto, "I came, I slept, I graduated.")

Why did the war on poverty fail? What was wrong with the programs under which the nation spent over $5 trillion attempting to solve the problems of the poor, only to come up empty? It's an important question to ask in these days of welfare reform. The first step toward a sound policy ought to be to identify the errors of the past.

Perhaps the best way to answer the question is to take a close look at the book that inspired the war on poverty, Michael Harrington's The Other America, published in 1962. (Harrington died in 1989.) Possibly the most influential policy book in history, The Other America was cited again and again by the politicians, activists, and administrators who set up welfare programs in the 1960s. In it we find the fallacies that sent reformers down dark and tangled paths into today's social tragedies.

Curing Poverty Through Algebra

Though social workers and welfare administrators embraced Harrington's account, neither he nor they realized how distinctive, even bizarre, was the theory of poverty that it contained. Harrington's premise was that poverty is a purely economic problem: the needy simply lack the material resources to lead productive, happy lives. Supply these resources, the theory runs, and you will have solved the problem of poverty. "The means are at hand," declared Harrington, "to fulfill the age-old dream: poverty can now be abolished."2 This theme was repeated up and down the welfare establishment. Sargent Shriver, the administration's leading anti-poverty warrior, told Congress that the nation had "both the resources and the know-how to eliminate grinding poverty in the United States." President Lyndon Johnson echoed the claim. "For the first time in our history," he declared, "it is possible to conquer poverty."

To most people, these claims seemed incredibly naive. While the state of neediness we call poverty does involve a lack of material resources, it also involves a mass of psychological and moral problems, including weak motivation, lack of trust in others, ignorance, irresponsibility, self-destructiveness, short-sightedness, alcoholism, drug addiction, promiscuity, and violence. To say that all these behavioral and psychological problems can be "abolished" seems a denial of the common-sense Biblical teaching that the poor will always be with us. …

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