Was the War on Poverty a Failure?

Thank you for joining us for this first in a series of Arena KO debates brought to you by FEE, The Foundation for Economic Education

My name is JSB Morse. I’m an author of several  books, namely the political thriller “Gods of Ruin” and “Chaos and Kingdom” and I’m also on the board of America’s Future Foundation here in Austin where I help put on pro-liberty events.

We’re here today to answer the question Is the War on Poverty a Failure?

It’s fitting that we’re holding this debate here in Austin, just miles from the library of the president who, in January 1964, just 8 weeks after the assassination of his predecessor, declared his “unconditional War on Poverty”. His stated goal was to “not only to relieve the symptom of poverty but to cure it, and above all to prevent it.”

The result was a host of legislation leading to several federal programs including Medicare, Medicaid, the Food Stamp Program, Community Action Program, Jobs Corps, along with education programs.

And, as with any government program, there have been costs. In the 50 years since Johnson made this declaration, the federal government has spent over $15 trillion (that’s a 15 with twelve zeros after it) 15 trillion dollar to fight poverty. That’s more than most countries’ GDP and just slightly less than the entire national debt today.

So, there has clearly been a cost. But Has it been worth it?

By some accounts it has. In the years following the the Great Society legislation, the poverty rate fell several percentage points to 11% and has fluctuated up to 15% but never up to the pre-War on Poverty rate of 23%. The most dramatic decrease in poverty was among Americans over 65, which fell from 28.5% in 1966 to 10.1% today.

But was the legislation necessary for these drops or would they have happened without the laws? Or worse, did the legislation actually stall the progress in the decline of poverty as some have claimed?

Is the War on Poverty a Failure?

Debate questions:

If you look at a chart of the rate of poverty in the United States, you’ll see a dramatic decrease from when they started tracking it in 1958 to when the Great Society legislation was passed. Then after the legislation was implemented, the poverty rate leveled off. Doesn’t this demonstrate that the legislation wasn’t necessary and could have stopped prosperity?

In total, the United States spends nearly $1 trillion every year to fight poverty. That amounts to $20,610 for every poor person in America, or $61,830 per poor family of three. But not all of the money gets to the impoverished. Given that tHe poverty line is just $18,530, we should have theoretically wiped out poverty in America many times over.” But there are 126 programs to facilitate this wealth transfer, which incur their own costs. Why not just give people a pro-rated amount of money directly to the poor raise them above the poverty line?

In a speech this past week at a conference held by Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, entitled “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case Against Libertarianism.” Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga reiterated the pope’s call for “the elimination of the structural causes for poverty.” He says rightly that there’s unacceptable poverty in his homeland of Honduras and elsewhere and he’s right that something needs to be done. Doesn’t government have a duty to do something to fight poverty?

As stated, we spend almost a trillion dollars a year on the War on Poverty. If we were to pull the rug out from under these programs right now, wouldn’t we suffer from a collapse of the system? Whether or not the war has been a failure, aren’t these programs needed now to keep the nation afloat at this point?