50 Years Of The War On Poverty: Tragedy or Triumph?
Religion & Liberty Online

50 Years Of The War On Poverty: Tragedy or Triumph?

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” Nicholas Eberstadt, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, has published a monograph entitled, The Great Society: The Triumph and The Tragedy at Fifty. Eberstadt calls Johnson’s vision for the war on poverty “the most ambitious call to date” in American political history. At the time of Johnson’s speech unveiling this “Great Society,” the United States had only one nation-wide social program, Social Security. Johnson wanted more:

The Great Society proposed to reach even further: to bring about wholesale renewal of our cities, beautification of our natural surroundings, vitalization of our educational system. All this, and much more—and the solutions to the many questions encountered in this great endeavor, we were told, would assuredly be found, since this undertaking would “assemble the best thought and the broadest knowledge from all over the world to find those answers for America.

This vision required a plethora of new social welfare programs: Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, along with the creation of entire new government offices (such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development.) Eberstadt asks, “Has the Great Society been a triumph or a tragedy?”

Let’s just say there is little triumph to be found. The Great Society plan did make remarkable gains in racial equality, the Civil Rights Act being chief among them. However, Eberstadt believes that the government’s plans were often over-reaching and fraught with unintended consequences.

One direct consequence of this civil rights strategy was a pronounced shift in the previously understood constitutional balance of power between the federal government and the states, with a corresponding encroachment on, or loss of, previously accepted “states’ rights.” But there was more at play than the redefinition, and diminution, of what had historically been states’ rights under the new civil rights apparatus, daring as that in itself may have been.

The focus then shifts, in Eberstadt’s monograph, to poverty and the hope of President Johnson to eradicate as much poverty as possible. The mind-set behind this, Eberstadt says, is that the government – with sufficient money, know-how and resources – could achieve the elimination of the most devastating of poverty.

This outlook exemplifies what Friedrich Hayek termed “scientism,” pure and simple: misapplication of techniques and theories from the natural sciences to other, patently unsuitable realms.

In the video below, the outcome of this “War on Poverty” is neatly summarized. Has the War on Poverty been one of tragedy of triumph? The numbers tell the story.

Elise Hilton

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