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The War on Poverty Has Failed

The War on Poverty Has Failed

Too bad we had to spend $22 trillion dollars to find that out.

For the last few years, liberals have been trying to re-brand the War on Poverty as a fight against income inequality, but that effort may have come too late.

According to a new report from Robert Rector at the Daily Signal, the writing is on the wall:

The War on Poverty Has Been a Colossal Flop

Today, the U.S. Census Bureau will release its annual report on poverty. This report is noteworthy because this year marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s launch of the War on Poverty. Liberals claim that the War on Poverty has failed because we didn’t spend enough money. Their answer is just to spend more. But the facts show otherwise.

Since its beginning, U.S. taxpayers have spent $22 trillion on Johnson’s War on Poverty (in constant 2012 dollars). Adjusting for inflation, that’s three times more than was spent on all military wars since the American Revolution.

The federal government currently runs more than 80 means-tested welfare programs. These programs provide cash, food, housing and medical care to low-income Americans. Federal and state spending on these programs last year was $943 billion. (These figures do not include Social Security, Medicare, or Unemployment Insurance.)

Michael D. Tanner of the Cato Institute made a similar point in January of this year:

War on Poverty at 50 — Despite Trillions Spent, Poverty Won

Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson delivered his first State of the Union address, promising an “unconditional war on poverty in America.” Looking at the wreckage since, it’s not hard to conclude that poverty won.

If we are losing the War on Poverty, it certainly isn’t for lack of effort.

In 2012, the federal government spent $668 billion to fund 126 separate anti-poverty programs. State and local governments kicked in another $284 billion, bringing total anti-poverty spending to nearly $1 trillion. That amounts to $20,610 for every poor person in America, or $61,830 per poor family of three.

Spending on the major anti-poverty programs increased in 2013, pushing the total even higher.

Over, the last 50 years, the government spent more than $16 trillion to fight poverty.

Yet today, 15 percent of Americans still live in poverty. That’s scarcely better than the 19 percent living in poverty at the time of Johnson’s speech. Nearly 22 percent of children live in poverty today. In 1964, it was 23 percent.

How could we have spent so much and achieved so little?

Perhaps America should put its confidence back in the ingenuity of the free market and job creators, rather than in government bureaucrats.

It might give us a fighting chance.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons.


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The “War on Poverty” is an industry a demographic and a political constituency wholly within itself, not unlike a cancer that has grown to the point where removal threatens the life of the host – us. It will just continue growing, with occasional trimming around the edges, until it consumes that host. The only competition in the system is which of the other industries/demographics/constituencies growing within the host will kill it first.

Well, whether the war on poverty has failed depends on your perspective. If you are looking at this as good for the country, or even good for the poor people it was intended to benefit, then clearly the war was lost. It has been a disaster for the country. But, if you are looking at it as a vehicle to increase the number of persons who will vote Democrat in election after election, it was and is a resounding success. It is such a success that it will never successfully or permanently be repealed.

    JackRussellTerrierist in reply to Steve Goodman. | September 17, 2014 at 4:18 pm

    It’s also been a boon for the over-compensated, mediocre, mostly lazy functionaries that fill the bloated government bureaucracies administering these programs.

We have a problem with definition here. The average American lives a life that was unobtainable by the richest 1% 50 years ago. Mobile phones were a curiosity then, now the poor have them. You have more computing power in your cell phone than what landed on the moon. The % of income spent on food is way lower than 50 years ago. Microwave ovens were <$1000 back then. Cars lasted 50K miles before you traded them in, now we expect 100K warrantie. Tires only went 20K miles. Long distance phone calls were expensive and rare. People went to matinee movies for the air-conditioning, not the show.

The definition of poverty in 1964 was that you did not know where your next meal was coming from and whether you were going to get it. Now the biggest problem with our "poor" people is they are too fat.

Despite the best efforts of Progressive, the War on Poverty was won not by Government, but by Capitalism.

    Now the biggest problem with our “poor” people is they are too fat.

    LOL – the gubmint wants to keep ’em fat, dumb, and happy. The ‘war on poverty’ is an emotion-grabbing catchphrase like ‘comprehensive immigration reform’ …. and both spell the end of the American dream.

    Imagine what could have been done if all those trillions of dollars had remained in the economy, where consumers could have bought goods and services, and capitalists could have invested in an expanded workforce.

Sure, just give all the money to the rich and everything will be fine. /sarc

    dorsaighost in reply to Chem_Geek. | September 17, 2014 at 12:59 pm

    what money ? oh, you mean the money you and I gave to the government ? how about they just don’t take it from us and get out of the giving money to people business …

      Ragspierre in reply to dorsaighost. | September 17, 2014 at 2:09 pm

      Perhaps to state the obvious, but…

      most of the money is being taken from our children and grandchildren…out several generations.

      Obviously WITHOUT their approval or even acquiesce.

      Talk about being screwed…

        jayjerome66 in reply to Ragspierre. | September 18, 2014 at 9:41 am

        And just think, without thier approval, but with their acquiescence, and without contributing a nickel on their own, they were able to make use and benefit from the money the previous generation contributed through tax dollars for government subsided infrastructure – roads, tunnels, stop lights, school busses, electric grids, dams, all the health and science byproducts of governmemt subsidies, grants, etc etc etc – and so you’re going to teach these future generations of spoiled entitled brats they in turn have an obligation to give back part of what they were given, right?

    That’s not the only choice.

    Truly that is how obama is making his friends even richer. Lots of taxpayer money going to the democrat upper 1 percenters.

Poverty in America:

75% of the “poor” own a car/truck
31% of the “poor” own two or more cars/trucks
67% of the “poor” have cable/satellite TV
40% of the “poor” have a wide-screen plasma/LCD television
25% of the “poor” have a DVR or Tivo service.
43% of the “poor” have Internet access
50% of the “poor” have a personal computer
15% of the “poor” have two or more personal computers
51% of the “poor” with children have a video gaming system
90% of the “poor” have a microwave

Source: The Heritage Foundation Backgrounder #2955

On the bright side, most of those trillions were spent here, in the US — so the money was recycled here, and businesses and landlords and neighborhood banks and check cashing stores here profited from it. And those improved autos and microwave manufacturers used that money for their bottom line. Not like the trillions spent on aid to corrupt government overseas, on bolstering armed forces in Islamic nations who swallowed our money and regurgitated it in graft and to anti-American organizations who want to kill us.

So as usual, those at the bottom and those at the top benefited, while those in the middle paid the most for it, but benefited too in the general raise in the standard of technological living.

    Ragspierre in reply to jayjerome66. | September 17, 2014 at 1:20 pm

    You restate a fundamental lie, while showing your economic ignorance.

    The lie is that there is a net benefit to redistribution of wealth. There isn’t.

    There are benefits, but not in the net when weighed against the costs. One of those is in the COST of passing money through the terribly inefficient Federal bureaucracies.

    There are MANY other costs, some of which are very hard for average people to see, and some of which are not strictly economic, like the effect on individual people who are consigned to a life of indolence.

    Individual people TEND to spend their money efficiently…and remarkably charitably.

      Henry Hawkins in reply to Ragspierre. | September 17, 2014 at 1:53 pm

      And who knew the welfare state was responsible for “the general raise in the standard of technological living.”

      Naw, no correlation errors here. lol, yikes. If this is evidence then I hereby blame the welfare state for global warming.

      jayjerome66 in reply to Ragspierre. | September 17, 2014 at 3:58 pm

      A- I didn’t say I was in favor of it, smucko, only that it was better then redistributing wealth to nations like Egypt, where we get little if any financial return for those bucks.
      B – nor did I say there was a net benefit to redistributing wealth, but your assertion there’s no absolute benefit to it depends on which experts you ask and how they define what constitutes a net benefit. If you’re slanted to one outcome, that’s the study you’ll quote. The progressive income tax structure is pure wealth redistribution – are you one of those head up their rectum theorists who want to abolish that with some ding bat rationalization it does more harm to the economy overall?

in words from the original Indiana Jones movie, “they are digging in the wrong place” …

The problem with spending other people’s money is that sooner or later you run out. Thatcher

The war on poverty was designed to make minorities into dependent and consistent voters for the dem party. I’d say that it was a total success. Nobody with an kind of logic ever believed that poverty was going to be eliminated since it has been with every culture since the dawn of time. What the dems have done is to remove the incentive to move out of poverty by having it be a trap.

    jayjerome66 in reply to showtime8. | September 17, 2014 at 4:22 pm

    Blacks had already been moving to the Democrats when FDR became president. A trend that continued during the great black migration from the south, starting in the 1940s, to predominately Democratic cities like New York, but it wasn’t as solidly black until after LBJ signed the civil rights act, when it went to about a 70% black vote for Dems to 90%. Which isn’t that big a voting shift overall for 12 or 13 percent of the population, of which, even for Obama, only 66% of those eligible voted

Jane the Actuary | September 17, 2014 at 1:19 pm

To the contrary, the War on Poverty worked pretty well: for all that you hear about “hungry” kids, the number of instances of people living in a situation of severe material deprivation is much reduced compared to, say, families living in sharecropper shacks in the ’60s.

What people fail to distinguish between is “poverty” as severe material deprivation (lack of food, clothing, an adequately-heated shelter) vs. “poverty” as the inability to support yourself/your family without government aid — which is really better labelled “War on Dependency” except then you get into the issue of the connotation of the word “dependency” and the implication that these people have themselves to blame.

TrooperJohnSmith | September 17, 2014 at 1:41 pm

The “War on Poverty” was never designed to succeed. It was LBJ’s answer to the Civil Rights Amendment.

Reportedly, ol’ Lynd’n said that with the passage of the so-called Great Society legislation, African American voters would be voting Democratic for the next 150-years! I cleaned up that quote considerably.

Before he died, LBJ was lauded in the inner circles of the Democratic Party, where he was detested for most of his political life, for turning a traditionally Republican constituency over the the Democrats.

Since the launch of the so-called Great Society, black illegitimacy rates have soared, as have the number of single-parent families, incarceration, high school drop out rates and… poverty.

All they did was industrialize poverty.

The fat squirrels laugh at the working squirrels because they get a cut of every nut and it ain’t a loan. Fat squirrels see no need of reform.

    The Welfare Industrial Complex (WIC) is part of the greater Social Industrial Complex (SIC). And people thought the Military Industrial Complex (MIC) was bad. Under SIC, there is a greater loss of dignity and life.

“You can’t cure poverty by giving people money”

– P.J. O’rourke

    Redistributive change works, for a while. However, recycling is a degenerative process. Worse yet, it has a predisposition of sponsoring corruption of both beneficiary and redistributor. It would be much better for society and the individual to focus on rehabilitation.

      Pythias in reply to n.n. | September 17, 2014 at 6:34 pm

      And to clarify, like PJ, I believe in helping people, both through charity and through government. The difference is that charities are usually really good at doing the right things with money, and government is really, really bad.

Nearly 3 trillion annually, and we still have indigent and even homeless Americans, and that’s after we abort/murder around 2 million Americans annually. Someone is lying.

    n.n in reply to n.n. | September 17, 2014 at 3:33 pm

    Correction: someone is skimming.

    Observer in reply to n.n. | September 17, 2014 at 8:44 pm

    We also have wide open borders, immigration laws that are being blatantly ignored by the Obama administration, and multiple foreign governments (e.g., Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, etc.) colluding with the Obama administration to bring millions of their poor into the U.S. and dump them onto the backs of U.S. taxpayers.

    It’s tough to win a “war on poverty” when our own government is continually importing fresh troops for the other side.

      jayjerome66 in reply to Observer. | September 17, 2014 at 10:15 pm

      American business is more to blame for encouraging Hispanics to come here., and stay here.

      Not only for jobs, but now as profit centers for products and services. Almost every business in the US speaks to them in Spanish – on every package sold of products on store shelves, and in advertisements for services, and on restaurant menus and TV listings for cable, and for every question for customer service where their language is available at the push of a button. American business has sold out American culture for their bottom line. And don’t blame lax immigration enforcement on Democrats alone. Reagen was the president who signed the first Amenesty law, and neither Bush, father or son, did anything to stop the flow of Hispanics across the border..

      The real immigration reform we need is to stop all but essential immigration from South America, and to reduce the percentage of the Hispanic population back to where it was prior to that first Amenesty, about 15% to 20% of the population, that means increasing European and other national immigration until the traditional balance is restored.

        Ragspierre in reply to jayjerome66. | September 18, 2014 at 12:32 am

        “Almost every business in the US speaks to them in Spanish – on every package sold of products on store shelves, and in advertisements for services, and on restaurant menus…”

        You are incredibly full of bullshit.

          jayjerome66 in reply to Ragspierre. | September 18, 2014 at 2:02 am

          Yeah you’re right, I just imagined all those Spanish/English product labels at my local Costco. And those 3,700 Walmart stores in the U.S. don’t have tens of thousands of their consumer products carrying bilingual English/Spanish product labels, even thou Walmart brags about it on company blogs. And I also must have imagined English/Spanish labels on the product display cases at BestBuy this weekend, and I’m just dreaming my WellsFargo bank statement that just came informs me to read Informacion Importante Sobre Su Cuenta, and surely I’m mistaken that my Dept of Water & Power Bill has printed in letters just as bold as the English Version that it’s showing me my water rate TARIFAS DE AGUA DE LADWP POR OCTUBRE-DICIEMRE.

          Thanks for straightening me out on the fact that Spanish isn’t proliferating faster in our culture then the Ebola virus in West Africa. Whew.. I’m glad to hear that.

          LADWP as in Los Angeles Dept of Water and Power? Good God, surely you realize that progressive cesspool is not indicitive of what happens in thevrest of the country, right?

          Since I believe you’re new here, I would also encourage you to spend a little time reading the posts here and count the number of nasty ad hominem attacks you see….you just fulfilled the monthly quota all by yourself in your first day here.

          jayjerome66 in reply to Ragspierre. | September 18, 2014 at 11:47 am

          I’m not new here, I’ve been posting for a year at least, but generally only when the bs level gets too unbearable to remain silent. Like now:

          What kind of hypocrite are you to chastise me for personal attacks after Ragspierre said I was an ignorant liar, and then full of bullshit. Or did that miss your selective definition of ad hominem attacks?

          And how very mature of you to insult the entire state of California and call it a cesspool. Sounds like the cesspool is in your brain.

          Sorry I hurt your feeling. The interwebs must be a very painful place for you.

          But do you acknowledge that your prior diatribe about the level of Spanish usage in the USA is wrong due to your location bias?

          I live in another state (Texas) that has nearly 40% latino population and it’s not anywhere nearly as prevalent here, probably because we haven’t ceded control of our government to Marxist fools (at least not in most places in the state). Those commie racist agitators, “The Race”, are trying hard though.

          jayjerome66 in reply to Ragspierre. | September 18, 2014 at 8:57 pm

          My final words on this, Paul:

          Yeah, the ‘interwebs’ are painful, like a head-aching mental gauntlet for me on a daily basis, reading stupidities from the left, idiocies from the right, and here I am, stuck in the middle again.

          And maybe you’re right about the location bias to a degree, but the ‘Hispanicazation’ of large parts of the nation was first brought up to me by my brother-in-law, who lives in Houston, and told me what a pain in the ass it was for him to flip thru the stations on his pick-up truck radio, looking for American music, with 7 FM and 5 AM Spanish languages radio stations in Houston, and the same problem with his TV remote with 6 Spanish language broadcast television stations to click past, and maybe a dozen more Spanish language cable stations too — not to mention 12 Spanish language newspapers in Houston as well — with more new Spanish media in sight.

          Plus he said he didn’t see why his taxes should subsidize the City of Houston’s multilingual city services help phone directory — where if you want to call about your trash or garbage or water bill or recycling, or contact the courts about auto tickets, or call the police or the mayor — you can do it via a special En Espanol number, with operators who will speak to you in Spanish.

          So it looks like Texas is perpetuating a foreign language in at least one major American city… not just CA. And next time you get your power or light or water bill, check it out — and don’t be surprised if parts of it are in Spanish.

For the most part, people who are habitually poor are poor because they have made poor life choices. Government should not be in the business of subsidizing or sentimentalizing poverty/poor choices.

The “War on Poverty” was a short-term solution, which has since occupied a large percentage of our economy. The problem is that it focused on redistribution rather than rehabilitation, socialization rather than community. The war on family only exacerbated the problem.

The “war on poverty” isn’t about poverty. Look at how government defines “poverty”. It’s a percentage of the median income. By that definition poverty is impossible to eliminate. You could raise everybody’s standard of living 10x and that same 15% would still be “in poverty” even though in actual fact they’re living like kings.

    Pythias in reply to randian. | September 17, 2014 at 6:48 pm

    The war on poverty is sponsored by the same people who are constantly trying to convince us that the one percent are sitting in their Scrooge McDuck vaults on top of their mountain of hundred dollar bills, when in fact their wealth pays salaries, finances homes, and generates a big chunk of the third of a trillion dollars in philanthropy each year.

I’d like to know how much of that money per person or per family actually didn’t reach the poor at all, but was consumed by the administration of all those programs.

The war on poverty has been a roaring success. It built a dependent class that reliably votes Democrat and now combined with millions of illegals who are not required to show ID to vote will assure the Dems are locked into power until America collapses. Like Nero when Rome burned, that will be the radical conservative Christians fault.