National Review editors examine the 50-year anniversary of LBJ’s ‘War on Poverty’

Did poverty win? It’s hard to come to any other conclusion after reading a National Review Online editorial.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s proclamation of a “war on poverty,” and the progress in this theater has not been encouraging. Trillions of dollars have been spent, and the number of Americans living in poverty is higher today than it was in 1964, while the poverty rate has held steady at just under one in five. That contrasts unpleasantly with the trend before President Johnson declared his war: The poverty rate had been dropping since the end of World War II. That progress came to a halt as President Johnson’s expensive and expansive vision began to be implemented in earnest, which coincided with the tapering of the postwar boom. By the 1970s, the poverty rate was headed upward. It declined a bit during the Reagan years, crested and receded again in the 1990s, and resumed its melancholy ascent around the turn of the century.

To understand the failure of the war on poverty requires understanding its structure, which itself is bound up in the idiosyncrasies of Lyndon Johnson’s politics. President Johnson played many parts in his political career: Southern ballast to John Kennedy’s buoyant Yankee idealism; an enemy of civil-rights reform and anti-lynching laws who reversed himself in 1964; a sometimes reluctant but in the end unshakeable Cold Warrior. But at heart President Johnson was a New Deal man, and his Great Society, of which the war on poverty was a critical component, was his attempt to resuscitate the spirit and the political success of Franklin Roosevelt’s program. …

… For all its shortcomings, and they were many, the New Deal was enacted in response to a genuine economic crisis—the Great Depression. The Great Society was launched under very different circumstances: Between the end of World War II and President Johnson’s declaration of war on poverty, the real economic output of the United States had doubled. The postwar boom was not destined to last forever, because the war-ravaged nations of Europe and Asia inevitably would reemerge as global economic competitors, but in the early 1960s the United States enjoyed a position of unprecedented economic advantage. The real challenge of the Johnson years, tragically overlooked, was figuring out how to build upon that position and consolidate those gains. Unfortunately, what got consolidated was political power, as Johnson and his progressive allies did what progressives always do: transfer wealth, power, and responsibility from the private sector to the public sector, where they can be put under the political discipline of men such as Johnson and his allies.

Regular readers in this forum know that the best way to help the poorest of the poor is to enact policies that promote economic freedom.

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