We just hit the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, and the numbers are grim: $22 trillion spent, but according to the Census Bureau, a slightly greater percentage of Americans fall below the poverty line.
On the other hand, some people say the numbers look great, and the War on Poverty was a smashing success… because the official definition of poverty doesn’t include the value of the extensive benefits bestowed by that $22 trillion bureaucracy. If you count those benefits, virtually no one in America is actually impoverished. Nearly everyone has food and shelter. In fact, in some states, unemployed welfare families have more disposable income than working middle-class families.
But then, isn’t the system fundamentally broken if people can spend generations on public assistance and live better than the working poor? Not only is that unfair, it’s a solid disincentive to work. Is it any wonder the percentage of technically impoverished Americans doesn’t change much, if entering the workforce represents a net loss to their standard of living?
I wrote an extensive analysis along these lines at RedState this weekend, contrasting two well-sourced analyses that used exactly the same data to declare the War on Poverty either a failure or a triumph. I lean strongly toward the “failure” conclusion myself, and I think the way we judge the performance of anti-poverty programs has powerful implications for way we view Big Government in general. A sample:
The most recent controversy is the use of EBT cards to buy marijuana in states where it’s legal. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, welfare-state apologists. That’s a million light-years from what the majority of the American public has in mind when they say they support a “safety net” for the disadvantaged.
You don’t even have to get into such outright lunacy to consider the notion of people who live comfortable lives at the expense of others a sign of failure, not success. Again, most people support the notion of a safety net, but the panoply of benefits Worstall exults mean that people who aren’t working – sometimes families that haven’t worked much over the course of several generations – are living every bit as comfortably as the working poor. Sometimes they live as comfortably as the middle class. It is not difficult to find states in which people on welfare have more disposable income than families working hard to earn solid middle-class incomes. That is wrong, period, full stop.
It’s both morally wrong and socially undesirable. To be brutally frank, for a sizable number of people, getting a job is illogical. The cost of benefits lost outweighs the income to be gained from working. Sometimes the value of lost welfare benefits is so high that employment is a losing proposition – you’re not just accepting the burden of hard work for minimal gain, you’re actually worse off than you were on the dole. The effects of such dependency on the people welfare was designed to help have been horrifying.
There is nothing to celebrate there, especially since the the money to fund these welfare programs is growing scarce. The impending financial meltdown of federal and state governments means a good deal of the money for Food Stamp Nation is illusory. It’s even worse than direct transfer payments… it’s transfer payments plus interest from increasing state and national debt. And when the unbearable crunch from financing all that debt, and paying for universal entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare, drains away all the government’s discretionary spending, we will not be well-served by having paid $22 trillion to maintain a stable population of people who cannot survive without the benefits we can no longer afford to provide. There will not be a 100th anniversary of the War on Poverty, and there won’t be anyone trying to portray it as a success on the 75th.
Click here to read the rest. I find it highly significant that the War on Poverty must be judged a disaster based on the criteria set forth at its inception. Allowing the Big Government Left to move the goalposts on its trillion-dollar initiatives is a huge mistake.