The War on Poverty a Half Century Later

Published January 8, 2014

Commentary Magazine

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the so-called War on Poverty.

It was January 8, 1964, in his Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union, where President Lyndon Johnson “declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States.” He went on to state, “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort. It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”

By most accounts, we did lose it (certainly by no reasonable standard did we win it). It’s worth recalling that this period was the high-water mark of liberal confidence. To appreciate just how high the expectations were at the time, consider that the previous month LBJ proclaimed that Americans were living in “the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem.” And during his State of the Union speech, Johnson set a very high bar for what was possible:

Let us work together to make this year’s session the best in the Nation’s history. Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined; as the session which enacted the most far-reaching tax cut of our time; as the session which declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States; as the session which finally recognized the health needs of all our older citizens; as the session which reformed our tangled transportation and transit policies; as the session which achieved the most effective, efficient foreign aid program ever; and as the session which helped to build more homes, more schools, more libraries, and more hospitals than any single session of Congress in the history of our Republic.

All this and more can and must be done. It can be done by this summer, and it can be done without any increase in spending.

There was no obvious ceiling to what progressives thought was achievable. At the time the idea that public-spirited men and women, at the head of the federal government, could transform American society sounded ambitious. Today it sounds fanciful and in some circumstances downright destructive (for more, see the Affordable Care Act).

So what did we learn?

In his biography of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, The Gentleman from New York, Godfrey Hodgson offers this summary of one of the men deeply involved in building what Johnson called The Great Society. While never abandoning his faith in the capacity and the duty of government to make society better, Hodgson argues, Moynihan “acquired a profound doubt about the central paradigm of liberal government: the assumption that social scientists should identify a need, devise a program of government action to meet that need and supervise the application of public money to the sore place through the ministrations of enlightened bureaucracy.”

By 1969, in a memorandum to President Nixon on the rise of welfare in New York and elsewhere, Moynihan wrote, “I believe the time has come for a President to state what increasingly is understood: that welfare as we know it is a bankrupt and destructive system…. It is also necessary to state that no one really understands why and how all this has happened.” And Moynihan’s great friend, the eminent social scientist James Q. Wilson, when asked about Moynihan’s increasing skepticism of the efficacy of government intervention in almost all circumstances, said this:

He always believes that the job of politics is to help those who can’t help themselves. But he has a scholar’s reluctance to accept the proposition that the government knows very much about how to help people who can’t help themselves.

When all that is required is to transfer money from person A to person B, as in the social security system, it works very well, and Pat has been a staunch defender of social security. But when it has to alter their character, when it has to alter whether men marry women with whom they begat a child, or when it has to reduce the crime rate, or has to deal with student radicalism, the fact of the matter is that government doesn’t know much what to do.

It’s complicated, however. Starting in the early-to-mid 1990s, we saw enormous progress on a range of social issues, including welfare, drug use, and crime. After the failures of the Great Society, we learned that progress can happen faster than many people thought possible. In analyzing various social trends in 2007, Yuval Levin and I wrote:

Despite the good case made by those who believe that diffidence, skepticism, and self-limitation are the prerequisites of sound policymaking, sometimes what is needed is a bold break with the past. There will always be unintended consequences, but even these need not always be for the worse, and the prospect of such unintended consequences should not paralyze us from taking action. Guided by a modest sense of possibility, and by realistic notions of the limits of politics, reform can succeed.

In thinking about the War on Poverty a half-century after it began, this still sounds about right to me.

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