Robert Rector

Robert Rector

Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson announced an “unconditional war on poverty,” Heritage Foundation expert Robert Rector writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription only).

Today, liberals argue that “income inequality” justifies further expansions of the welfare state. They claim that extended unemployment benefits are an unalloyed good that will relieve poverty. But history suggests otherwise.

Rector explains how the welfare system that arose after Johnson’s speech has been immensely destructive for the poor. And he recommends policy solutions that will help lift up them up:

Fifteen percent of Americans still live in poverty, according to the official census poverty report for 2012, unchanged since the mid-1960s. Liberals argue that we aren’t spending enough money on poverty-fighting programs, but that’s not the problem. In reality, we’re losing the war on poverty because we have forgotten the original goal, as LBJ stated it half a century ago: “to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities.”

The federal government currently runs more than 80 means-tested welfare programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care and targeted social services to poor and low-income Americans. Government spent $916 billion on these programs in 2012 alone, and roughly 100 million Americans received aid from at least one of them, at an average cost of $9,000 per recipient. (That figure doesn’t include Social Security or Medicare benefits.) Federal and state welfare spending, adjusted for inflation, is 16 times greater than it was in 1964. If converted to cash, current means-tested spending is five times the amount needed to eliminate all official poverty in the U.S.

Rector proposes a new way to measure the success of this liberal dream:

To judge the effort, consider LBJ’s original aim. He sought to give poor Americans “opportunity not doles,” planning to shrink welfare dependence not expand it. In his vision, the war on poverty would strengthen poor Americans’ capacity to support themselves, transforming “taxeaters” into “taxpayers.” It would attack not just the symptoms of poverty but, more important, remove the causes.

By that standard, the war on poverty has been a catastrophe. The root “causes” of poverty have not shrunk but expanded as family structure disintegrated and labor-force participation among men dropped. A large segment of the population is now less capable of self-sufficiency than when the war on poverty began.

There is a better way, Rector argues:

So how might we restore LBJ’s original mission in the war on poverty? First, as the economy improves, the government should require able-bodied, non-elderly adult recipients in federal welfare programs to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving benefits. We should also reduce the antimarriage incentives rife within welfare programs. For instance, current programs sharply cut benefits if a mother marries a working father. Reducing these restrictions would begin a long-term effort to rebuild the family in low-income communities.

Do you think it’s important to focus on solutions that will eliminate poverty by empowering individuals?

Comments (33)

Brian Zuckerman - January 10, 2014

I take exception to the statement stating that the cost for welfare programs does not include social security and medicare. Since when are those programs welfare programs? I have paid into both programs for many years and will never get the amount I paid in back in social security benefits. In fact, my social security payments are reduced to fund my medicare benefits because I have too much income. I guess that is the Government way to say shame on me for being frugal and saving all of my life to have extra income in my retirement years.

I keep hearing that social security and medicare are going to go broke at some point in the future. I never hear that the real social welfare programs like food stamps, free cell phones, rent subsidies, etc. are going to be broke.

You folks need to separate what has been paid for from what you want to give away when discussing this problem.

Miss VNT - January 10, 2014

I concur with Rector’s last statement. IT IS ABSOLUTELY IMPERATIVE that each individual become empowered to make good things happen in his/her own life. Empowerment is gained by doing. Setting goals and making them happen, become reality one at a time, is extremenly important!! Look at a little child’s eyes sparkle with joy when he goes from crawling to standing up all by himself.

Mr ED - January 10, 2014

This program as stated by Mr Rector was proved out in two administrations of very recently. ,.It works.
Why not try the program again. .

James L. Owens - January 10, 2014

Yes. I went to work at 13 because I wanted to put some money in the pot at home and have some of my own. My three younger brothers followed. We wanted to work and sought responsiblity. It might also help if single mothers could not get a pay increase another child.

Mary Johnson - January 10, 2014

Eliminate minimum wage so youth will learn the value of work and savings early while getting work experience. Encourage business internships – without quota of any sort.
Strengthen the family unit (children with a mother and father home.) Public schools free of Washington controls so locals may decide and demand disciple, teachers prepare lessons accordingly, and monitor progress of students daily. Those that do not work do not eat (abled bodied).

Var St. Jeor - January 10, 2014

To take a stand against the liberal tidal wave of opinion: I think it was a good thing to have a stigma associated with receiving government support, which was not associated with real work. And, I think self-pride and the sense of self-worth and satisfaction one has in earning every dollar one receives should also be central to our ( the American) culture. I lost my job as a scientist at one point and was out of my chosen carrier for 5 years. I had a family to support, and I couldn’t just let them hang there. I wanted to set a good example for my kids to remember. So I did whatever I could find in-term, farm labor, substitute teaching, construction, until finely, one day I received a call on my resume, to come in for an interview. And life changed once more, this time for the good.
I can remember when I landed my 1st post college job. I had to move out of state. I had nothing, and had to cut firewood to make enough money just to get to my new job. And, once there, I had to work doing second jobs until I could start receiving paychecks from my new employer.
I know people who are gainfully employed, even though they are missing hands, arms or legs. They have pride in their work and in the fact that they are providing for their own needs and, in some cases, for the needs of their family.
I hear people complain about jobs white Americans won’t do, and yet I have picked fruit and vegetables for a living, shoulder-to-shoulder with farm laborers who couldn’t speak English. The so-called “war on poverty” will be won when people get to work. And people will be able to get to work when the Government gets out of the way of the private sector, and quits moly-coddling those who can, but will not work.

Larnard Smith - January 10, 2014

These are real solutions which many of us have talked about. We must separate the real poor from the lazy health poor. Why not hire many of these for our public jobs?

Donna Mix - January 10, 2014

Our welfare system today does nothing to empower or build up the esteem of its recipients: quite the opposite. It was another mistake to remove the work requirement, one of Obama’s actions. If welfare allowed methods for people to begin to redeem themselves, again begin to dream, inspire them to obtain their goals by working toward those goals, we’d have an entirely different country from what we have now. People can find no self-respect on our welfare program, and there aren’t enough people still receiving a paycheck to finance any more. I don’t have a way with words: hope you know what I mean!

Richard R.Tryon - January 10, 2014

To our President, the most effective and best solution to winning the so-called war on poverty, is to tax the rich and let well meaning federal employees manage the two stage solution: First tax those who only pay 85% of all income taxes collected and redistribute to the poor as defined and qualified by those whose jobs depend on continuous need for them to make the fight worthwhile in this and all subsequent generations; and second produce ever more federal employees to vote for maintaining their jobs and programs that maintain those in poverty to reproduce enough more that the war never ends! Everyone wins until the printed money to pay for what the rich no longer have to be taxed away runs to the point of making the paper worthless. The president knows by then he has enough votes that he and his successors can’t lose. Only a collapse such as Gorbachev experienced in the Soviet Union, will destroy or cause the leaders to disappear without a shot being fired! By then they will have died as heroes.

Jay C.B. - January 10, 2014

It isn’t crumbs off the table that we ought to be throwing to people, it is the promise of a job and benefits to families. The Democratic Party really depends on buying millions of votes by throwing little pieces of crumbs to its voting base and that is just a reality. The welfare state is unsustainable – at some point you cannot continue paying people not to work.

Margaret Trinklein - January 10, 2014

We need more Robert Rectors. How refreshing to read intelligent, realistic solutions to our nation’s problems!

Ellen Elmore - January 10, 2014

The only solution to eliminate proverty is to encourage individuals to find a job. As long as the government pays them to stay home (Welfare) they will never find a job and get out of poverty.

Raymond F. Arvish - January 10, 2014

These solutions, as suggested by Rector, should be a no brainer to anyone with common sense. The problem lies with the far left liberals who see it as their “holy grail” to nurture and protect those that see as being demonized by the other side. A seismic shift in attitude has to come from those caught in this “welfare trap” demanding a new way to move up. That won’t come from more government paternalism the liberal left is so want to use for their own benefit politically because for them that is the name of the game.

Enoch B. Thweatt Jr - January 10, 2014

My wife and I voted for Richard Nixon a long time ago because he called for about the same thing, but he did not follow through. It seems to me that the politicians in Washington are not looking for a permanent solution for any of the nation’s problems. I have written a book on illegal immigration, have given it to our Senators and our Representative, to other “think tanks” that are well known, in which I have written in detail how to get a permanent solution to this problem. I have not even received an acknowledgement that the books were received. Some were hand carried to their offices even! Until those who are supposed to truly represent us in Washington begin to face these problems with a mindset that is fixed on permanent solutions to all of our problems, they are not worthy of the office they hold. But hoping that the next election will solve these kinds of serious problems is wishful thinking. May God help us to return to our basic moral and ethical values on which this nation was founded.

Stanford Redisch - January 11, 2014

It was mistake to elect a fool as president! No body challenged his mental aptitude for survival of civilization and snake oil was sold again! The sham continues and the schools need Heritage spin on how to survive in this world! Wealth should be judged in mind first and then I the bank! Wealth needs to be mental asset and character traits above anything else!

Zoli Althea Browne - January 11, 2014

Yes, it is always a positive move to empower individuals, but with words and actions, not gimme societal venues.

lynn hillman - January 11, 2014

Opportunities, not handouts–yes!

Mr Joseph M Volkmann - January 11, 2014

I how do you force folks to:
go to school get decent grades and graduate;
get further education if possible;
get a job and hold it;
seek promotions and pay raises;
use common sense in your spending habits; and
save more than you spend?
Those are the only ways out of poverty, and they cannot be mandated.

Tom Salapatek - January 11, 2014

The article and its recommendations were well put, however you neglected what I believe is a seldom-recognized point: the proper definition of poverty. The article also mentioned what those in poverty have: homes, cars, big screen tvs, and even large bank accounts or assets, because poverty is defined based on income, not assets. Also, the definition of poverty incomes do not include government program incomes, like welfare. So if welfare checks were increased to $1 million per month to “those in poverty” it would not impact at all the numbers being touted as those in poverty. Of course government programs have had no effect on poverty, they’re not counted in the definition.

Barbara Sbrogna - January 11, 2014

Indulge my story, which has a point: I’m an early “baby boomer” who was potty trained in a house without indoor plumbing. At times, supper consisted of saltine crackers and milk and lunch was mustard sandwiches. I was often made fun of because my second-hand clothes were too big, too small, or just plain ragged. And I don’t bemoan one minute of that life because it only made me want to improve myself.

In the early 1960’s we had to be on welfare for a period of time when my dad was ill and couldn’t work. It was a humiliating experience. The social worker wanted him to sell his car. She regularly examined our house (affectionately called “the dump”) for possible “luxury” items we were hiding, had our 4-party line phone disconnected, and every Friday showed up at our door to collect the $13 a week that I made from a baby sitting job, likely an illegal act. So, when advocates began crying for welfare reform, I was completely in favor of the efforts.

Unfortunately, as often happens when liberals get their hands on something, what starts out with good intentions ends up creating more dependence (for generation after generation) and worse, kills any desire for people to excel or even to modestly improve their lot in life. The “temporary” becomes permanent and the destructive cycle begins. Those of us very hard working middle-class people who have brought ourselves into prosperity and believe in self-dignity, end up being used, berated, and resentful. We believe that there should be end-dates for welfare benefits and work requirements for the able-bodied. We believe in reasonable concessions that allow people the time to transition off. Yet, we are called mean-spirited, cruel, and evil. So, yes, it is time to attack this problem head-on! Republicans need to muster up the courage, take on the attacks, and deal with a government that is destroying lives every single day. Fifty years and trillions of dollars later and poverty is nearly as high as it was in 1964. We ignore this at our peril and our children and grandchildren will be correct to resent us!

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to express my experiences and feelings.

Dan - January 11, 2014

Very much disincentive for welfare recipients to try to establish stable families… consider the case of two disabled people (disabled since childhood, really, and each receiving SDI based on their respective fathers’ work records. If they marry, half their income is withdrawn by law and regulation.

Philip Capo - January 11, 2014

When you accept the premise that it is the government’s responsibility to provide “welfare” by taking what belongs to one group of people and giving it to another group of people, you have not only lost the nebulous “war on poverty” before it began, but you have given the nod to legalized plunder, thereby removing any security one might have in his person or property, notwithstanding the 4th Amendment, making him a slave to the State.

Robert Augeri - January 11, 2014

It all stems from the family. If the parents do not give the incentive for there children to pull themselves out of the gutter all the money and programs will do no good. Maybe if cell phones and other goodies were taken away just maybe they may come out of poverty. I worked in areas where welfare was rampart and was said to me and someone else is why should I work when I can stay home and collect. Back then powder eggs was given in cans and cheese in blocks. Go back to the same system and may today it might light a spark. Remember it starts with the family values.

Charles Skinner - January 11, 2014

While it is impossible to ever eliminate poverty, changes in the welfare system can reduce the number of people in the system without adding undue burdens on them. Incentives to get off welfare should be incorporated as part of being able to draw it when the individual first signs up.

Patricia - January 11, 2014

We need to do something. What we have now is not working for anyone. It may be something that sounds impossible, but we can’t keep feeding moneys into anything that is plainly not working.

clarence sumner - January 11, 2014

No one is held accountable for any of these government give away programs.( They are to buy votes.) Just today there is over 90mil. people dropped out of looking for work. The democ rats. have them on food stamps, welfare, social security disability and unemployment ins.IT IS A PARTY. COME ONE COME ALL

John Illinois - January 11, 2014

It depends upon how you look at the war on poverty. It has created a whole industry of middle class Americans who have had their poverty either eliminated or prevented by the industry of servicing the poor–I mean bureaucrats, social workers, contractors, clerical staff, and enforcement staff who work in the industry. If they actually ended poverty, then they’d be out of jobs, and possibly poor themselves.

Don - January 11, 2014

Anyone who has the “power” to spend a handout has the “power” to go stand in line to get it, never electronically! AND, when they arrive at the head of the line, if there is a street in their town that needs sweeping they should be required to completely and satisfactorily sweep that street before they recieve a public penny!

Holly Chapo - January 12, 2014

Over the long term, no one has benefitted from poverty programs. What is the saying from the Bible – feeding a man a fish will take away his hunger for one day; teaching him how to fish will feed him his entire life. Pushing people into dependency is a guarantee of poverty and a diminution of self-esteem, confidence and the belief in the ability to take care of oneself. It’s long overdue to work on empowering individuals to take charge of their lives, to communicate the importance of liberty, the family, and faith. Government is not the answer, it is the problem. Now what great American president said that?

Keith Sutyak - January 13, 2014

One of the very first considerations that should be applied to any piece of legislation is the long term impact that the legislation would have on jobs for the American people. This is a government FOR the people, not AGAINST the people.

charles fsenne - January 16, 2014

Get the government out of marriage license business. Status should be registration by a partnership of couples.
All couples that beget a child shall be [ forced, using DNA if necessary ] registered as a legal partnership with full
responsibility till the child is 21 or legally adopted by another couple.True marriage vows of fealty are best taken
in a religious public setting with the purpose of family creation and never be besmirched by those with a gender problem.
Divorce, without children should be taxed at 1/3 of all assets, minimum $10,000 – with children . same with child protections.
Note: Marriage is not just sex entertainment with a friend

Albert Kohn - January 17, 2014

Absolutely. Providing the opportunity and the proper skills to fill employment openings is a far better solutiion than more dependency on government handouts. It also reverses the spending for these benefits to increasing tax revenues from increased employment. In many cases, the tax free, net income from public assistance programs is greater than the after tax income from working. This is a disincentive to seeking employment and must be corrected. Then they would be getting more votes out of appreciation rather than desperation. Big difference! It’s about time our elected officials stop worrying about getting votes from these beneficiaries getting public assistance and start focusing on how to help them get jobs that can lift them out of the poverty level.

Deb Lemons - February 23, 2014

WOW, there are some good, straight on, comment here and I concur almost 100% with each. It definitely would be nice to see a separation in Social Security and Welfare. Nothing, except our taxes is paid into welfare and yes, we older people paid into SS, because we were told it was a specially designed retirement program, that was designed to grow for us and for the future. CONGRESS, (and Yes, President) QUIT STEALING FROM OUR BENEFITS, to fund your petty projects and those who work for nothing. Because you are not subject to the rules you create for the elderly, e.g. retirement programs, insurance programs, tax increases, etc., STOP punishing us for your pettiness, greed and ineptitude. I did not ask for Medicare, you forced it one my by your “good ideas” (not), which caused my employer retirement program to default me into Medicare. And I can see the track toward forcing me into Medicaid, by cutting and disallowing Medicare and Secondary benefits. THIS CRAP IS NOT FREEDOM AND IT IS NOT GOVERNMENT FOR THE PEOPLE.
Quit stealing from Medicare and it would not go broke; quit funding freeloaders and we will have less debt. Quit lining your own pockets and egos and it will be a better government and a better America.

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