As noted here on the Acton PowerBlog earlier this week, 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of war on poverty. Economist Nicholas Eberstadt, in an interview with the American Enterprise Institute, discusses what he calls the “brave new welfare state” we now have due to over-grown public assistance and unintended consequences of government programs.
Asked if we need to spend more money on anti-poverty initiatives, Eberstadt answers:
Let me suggest this is not the right way of framing the question. Quite the contrary: if we presume that government entitlement transfers are the answer to the poverty problem, we are pretty much doomed to failure before we even start.
For a healthy national community of prosperous and independent citizens, we need a nation with strong families, solid education, a serious work ethic, and a good jobs market. Anti-poverty programs can only substitute for these fundamentals—and unfortunately such programs are necessarily rather limited and imperfect substitutes. Of course there is a role for public resources in addressing public need—but such government resources can be targeted more efficiently and intelligently than we are doing today.
It’s also noted in the interview that, 50 years ago, far fewer men were unemployed than today (16 percent unemployment in 1964 v. 28 percent today for men over the age of 20.) Eberstadt calls this a “flight from work.”
Part of the declining “work rate” for men is simply the consequence of population aging: all other things being equal, we would still expect a lower ratio of employment to population for adult men as the proportion near or in retirement ages rises.
But the “aging effect” can only account for part of the declining work rates for modern American men. We can see this is we look at men 25-54 years of age—traditionally, a prime working cohort. Between January 1964 and January 2014, the percentage of such prime working age men with jobs fell by 10 points (93.4% vs. 83.3%). This is not just a reflection on our current job outlook, though. Fifty years ago, all but 3% of that group had work or were looking for it; today almost 12% are neither working nor looking for work. Thus, for every unemployed American man between the ages of 25 and 54 today, there are two more who are checked out of the workforce altogether.
Eberstadt recounts that people’s perception of welfare or public assistance has changed drastically in the past 50 years. This is troubling, as Eberstadt claims that, “For two generations we have been defining dependency upwards.” Further, he notes that we’ve created a “tangle of pathologies” (a phrase used by former Democratic Senator Daniel Moynihan): more children growing up in one-parent homes (usually headed by a single female), joblessness for men, long-term dependence on welfare, along with generations of families being dependent on government programs that were not intended to be long-term solutions to poverty.
Hindsight is, as they say, 20-20. The question, now that we know what’s gone wrong over the past 50 years, is where do we go from here? Hard questions need to asked, and even harder changes must be implemented.
Read “’The ‘Great Society’ At 50′: A Q&A with Nicholas Eberstadt” at the American Enterprise Institute.