War On Poverty: The Report Is In
Religion & Liberty Online

War On Poverty: The Report Is In

The House Budget Committee has issued its report on The War on Poverty, 50 Years Later. It’s 204 pages long, so feel free to dig in. However, I’ll just hit some of the highlights.

Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty has created 92 government programs, currently costing us about $800 billion. The committee’s take on this is summed up as:

But rather than provide a roadmap out of poverty, Washington has created a complex web of programs that are often difficult to navigate. Some programs provide critical aid to families in need. Others discourage families from getting ahead. And for many of these programs, we just don’t know. There’s little evidence either way.

The poverty rate in the U.S. has changed very little in 50 years. The committee reports that many of the government programs duplicate each other, creating over-spending. They also acknowledge that the best anti-poverty programs encourage work, and tax breaks offer the biggest help to low-income families. The biggest predictor of poverty and greatest obstacle to over-coming it? Family structure.

Perhaps the single most important determinant of poverty is family structure. It has been the subject of fierce academic debate since the Moynihan Report named after its author, then-assistant secretary of labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan was released in 1965. The Moynihan Report identified the breakdown of the family as a key cause of poverty within the black community.

More recent research on Americans of all backgrounds has backed up Moynihan’s argument. According to the Census Bureau, single parenthood is a key correlate with poverty. Single women head less than 20 percent of all households; but they head 34 percent of all poor households. The Brookings Institution’s Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill point out that if a person works full time, gets a high school education, and waits until he or she is married to have children, the chances of being poor are just 2 percent. And Hilary Hoynes finds, “If all else had been held constant over the past forty years, changes in family structure would have led to a rise in the poverty rate from 13% (in 1967) to 17% (in 2003).”

One striking finding of the committee has to do with child development and child-care subsidies. Both are found to have negative effects. Child-care subsidies are seen to worsen maternal health and interactions between mother and child, as well as behavioral problems in kindergarten.

The report is also critical of the Job Corps program, designed to help young adults gain employment skills. Unfortunately, the cost of the program far outweighs its benefits.

One enormous program in the War on Poverty is SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) – commonly known as food stamps. Findings include that SNAP has only a modest affect on poverty rates, and even worse, discourages work among recipients.

It’s hard to find much good news in this report. Clearly, the War on Poverty hasn’t worked, and it’s cost us a lot of money. It’s is clear that giving people money and aid without expecting much of anything in return is a sure-fire way to to discourage initiative, entrepreneurship and higher employment rates. This is one war we need to end.

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.