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Where’s the Exit Strategy on the War on Poverty?

Myron Magnet in the current issue of City Journal talks about the War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement:

The War on Poverty certainly didn?t cause the 1960s Cultural Revolution. Quite the reverse: it was itself the pure emanation of the new culture?s worldview. But it played such a decisive role in the formation of the underclass because it was one of the principal channels through which the new worldview got transmitted to the worst-off Americans who fell into that class. At the heart of the War on Poverty was the utterly debilitating message that the worst-off were victims: that the larger society, ?the system,? rather than their own behavior, was to blame for their poverty, their crime, their failure….

The Community Action Program, the War on Poverty?s first (and worst) initiative, rests on a bizarre circularity in reasoning: that the poor must become active in improving their lot by demanding more and better services and transfer payments of which they are the passive recipients. As a practical matter, the most spectacular action the program took was the protracted mau-mauing of New York City?s welfare offices, which resulted in loosened eligibility requirements, fatter welfare payments, and a huge expansion of the welfare rolls. This campaign went a long way to destigmatizing welfare and establishing it as a right, as if it were reparations for victimization.

An interesting thesis. Clearly, the War on Poverty had, in many places, the opposite effect of its intention.

(Thanks to Porphyrogenitus for the pointer. I’m glad to see Porphy’s got at least some form of internet access again.)

3 comments to Where’s the Exit Strategy on the War on Poverty?

  • Joshua

    Actually, the War On Poverty substantially reduced the extent of poverty in terms of percent Americans falling under the official poverty line (which wasn’t established until 1964). In the early 1970′s, poverty was at its lowest point in U.S. history. We went from 22% of the population in poverty in 1959 to a fluctuation between 11 and 14% since the mid 1990′s. Poverty in terms of percent population was at its height in the early to mid 1980′s and early 1990′s. We are round abouts the 1988-89 level now, around 13%. Close to eight years after the Welfare Reform of 1996, poverty in terms of percent population has largely remained the same. In terms of sheer numbers, 31 million people in America lived at or below the poverty line in 2000. Of that number, 6.4 million were the “working poor.”

    While there has to be incentive for people to work built within the welfare system, two factors have to be present: 1. jobs must be available 2. of the poor who have families, small children must be taken care of. Without accounting for these two factors, all the mau-mauing of the “culture of poverty” argument hardens hearts without informing heads. Study after study shows that the poor want to work, but face considerable obstacles in finding and maintaining a living wage. At the current time, we have to hope that giving enormous tax breaks to the wealthy will somehow create jobs for the poor, though there is scant evidence that the plan is working. On the second factor, both the public and private sectors have been in denial about workplace childcare. Mau-mauing about “welfare babies” and “welfare mothers” does not help; we need realistic attention paid to workplace childcare. Actually, the issue of workplace childcare goes beyond the poor. Lower and middle class families could use that kind of help.

  • Seems to me that we end up getting into the battle of the statistics: who’s right? Did Magnet make up his entire thesis out of whole cloth, or is there really a problem here?

    What do “enormous tax breaks for the wealthy” have to do with the working poor? Is this part of the zero-sum game of economics where any penny the wealthy holds onto somehow takes food from the mouths of people who simply can’t get work (no matter how hard they try)? Once again, it’s the fault of the rich: they keep their money and poor people starve.

    I looked through the article and couldn’t find an instance of the term “welfare babies.” I don’t know where that came from.

    Somehow, I don’t think that workplace child care will fix the illegitimacy problem in America, nor the dissolution of the family unit. Rather than slapping a taxpayer-funded band-aid onto a gushing hemmorhage and labeling it “workplace child care,” wouldn’t it be better somehow to fix a larger problem: illegitimate birth rates? The continual rewarding of stupid behavior by throwing taxpayer money at it hasn’t worked yet. When is it time to try something different?

  • Joshua

    When the Republicans took control of the congress in 1994, the wanted welfare reforms. They got it. It didn’t work like they thought. Not enough jobs, insufficent training, and a blind eye towards the “illegitimate children” problem. I agree, let’s try something new.

    What does tax breaks for the wealthy have to do with the working poor? A lot, I hope. See, the only reason to give so much wealthfare for the working rich is that they reinvest in the economy by providing jobs. It didn’t work out like they thought.

    This is no battle of statistics. The stats I gave are the official U.S. government statistics. I don’t know how they can be refuted, although they tend to underestimate the extent of poverty in the U.S.

    Welfare babies is my term.

    Who has all these “illegitimate children?” The poor, of course. Research also shows that as the economic situation improves, people have fewer babies. Instead of telling people not to have sex (the current administration’s solution), why not try to improve their economic situation? Why not try something new, indeed!