The War on Poverty crippled marriage in low-income communities. As means-tested benefits were expanded, welfare began to serve as a substitute for a husband in the home, eroding marriage among lower-income Americans. In addition, the welfare system actively penalized low-income couples who did marry by eliminating or substantially reducing benefits. As husbands left the home, the need for more welfare to support single mothers increased. The War on Poverty created a destructive feedback loop: Welfare promoted the decline of marriage, which generated the need for more welfare.
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However, understanding poverty in America requires looking behind these numbers at the actual living conditions of the individuals the government deems to be poor. For most Americans, the word “poverty” suggests near destitution: an inability to provide nutritious food, clothing, and reasonable shelter for one’s family. However, only a small number of the 46 million persons classified as “poor” by the Census Bureau fit that description. While real material hardship certainly does occur, it is limited in scope and severity.
This week, the U.S. Census Bureau is scheduled to release its annual poverty report. The report will be notable because this year marks the 50th anniversary of the launch of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. In his January 1964 State of the Union address, Johnson proclaimed, “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.”
Since that time, U.S. taxpayers have spent over $22 trillion on anti-poverty programs (in constant 2012 dollars). Adjusted for inflation, this spending (which does not include Social Security or Medicare) is three times the cost of all military wars in U.S. history since the American Revolution. Despite this mountain of spending, progress against poverty, at least as measured by the government, has been minimal.
Due to the overall success and the median income of those in America comparatively to the globe, only a very small portion is defined as living in absolute poverty (not meeting very basics).
The second major cause of child poverty is lack of parental work. Even in good economic times, the average poor family with children has only 800 hours of total parental work per year—the equivalent of one adult working 16 hours per week. The math is fairly simple: Little work equals little income, which equals poverty. If the amount of work performed by poor families with children was increased to the equivalent of one adult working full time throughout the year, the poverty rate among these families would drop by two-thirds.
Despite the dominant role of the decline of marriage in child poverty, this issue is taboo in most anti-poverty discussions. The press rarely mentions out-of-wedlock childbearing. Far from reducing the main cause of child poverty, the welfare state cannot even acknowledge its existence.
Today, out-of-wedlock childbearing—with the resulting growth of single-parent homes—is the most important cause of child poverty. (Out-of-wedlock childbearing is not the same thing as teen pregnancy; the overwhelming majority of non-marital births occur to young adult women in their early twenties, not to teenagers in high school.) If poor women who give birth outside of marriage were married to the fathers of their children, two-thirds would immediately be lifted out of poverty. Roughly 80 percent of all long-term poverty occurs in single-parent homes.
A major element in the declining capacity for self-support is the collapse of marriage in low-income communities. As the War on Poverty expanded benefits, welfare began to serve as a substitute for a husband in the home, and low-income marriage began to disappear. When Johnson launched the War on Poverty, 7 percent of American children were born out of wedlock. Today, the number is over 40 percent. As married fathers disappeared from the home, the need for more welfare to support single mothers increased. The War on Poverty created a destructive feedback loop: Welfare undermined marriage, and this generated a need for more welfare.
The living conditions of the poor as defined by the government bear little resemblance to notions of “poverty” promoted by politicians and political activists. If poverty is defined as lacking adequate nutritious food for one’s family, a reasonably warm and dry apartment, or a car to go to work when one is needed, then the United States has relatively few poor persons. Real material hardship does occur, but it is limited in scope and severity.
President Johnson was not proposing a massive system of ever-increasing welfare benefits doled out to an ever-growing population of beneficiaries. His proclaimed goal was not to create a massive new system of government handouts, but to increase self-sufficiency in a new generation, enabling them to lift themselves out of poverty without government handouts. LBJ planned to reduce, not increase, welfare dependence. The goal of the War on Poverty was “making taxpayers out of taxeaters.” He declared, “We want to give the forgotten fifth of our people opportunity not doles.”
The answer is: yes and no. Not even the government can spend $9,000 per person without significantly affecting living conditions. However, the original goal of the War on Poverty was not to prop up living standards artificially through an ever-expanding welfare state. When Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, he intended it to strike “at the causes, not just the consequences of poverty.” He added, “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.”