There were celebrations last week of the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of war on poverty. From it came Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, Community Action, and many more antipoverty programs — 126 at last count. It was, according to some enthusiasts, a historic commitment of the nation to economic justice. The declaration also was a historic triumph of hope over experience.
By the official but oversimplified estimate from the Census Bureau, the poverty rate was 19% in 1964 and 16% in 2013. At that rate, and without allowing for diminishing returns, the poor will still be with us in 2264.
LBJ’s heirs are still trying to fight poverty using the same weapons, the same strategy, and the same tactics. Compared with the leaders of the army of poverty fighters, Gen. William Westmoreland was flexible and creative. Like Westmoreland in Vietnam, the poverty fighters would like to keep doing the same things, except that they need more troops and more money.
Rarely did anyone ask last week if federal and state governments’ spending more than $16 trillion (adjusted for inflation) over 50 years has improved the lives of people in poverty. Even more rarely heard was the more vital question of whether all that money and time improved the economic potential of the people who live in poverty.
Yes, antipoverty spending, now running at about $600 billion a year in our $3.4 trillion federal budget and another $230 billion in antipoverty spending by the states, makes life in poverty much less painful than it was in 1964, especially for the sick, the aged, and children.
No, all that money has not made it much easier for the people born on the bottom rung of the economic ladder to get meaningful educations, positive attitudes, and attain employment leading up the ladder.