Poverty in the U.S. Was Plummeting—Until Lyndon Johnson Declared War On It
Tuesday, October 16, 2018
This excellent article from Fee.org fairly describes the quagmire that LBJ’s War On Poverty got America into. The quagmire is the result of America’s welfare system ensnaring poor people into an economic trap that hurts both the trapped and the trappers. This truth is well worth understanding. The article, however, sheds insufficient light on the human toll our welfare system imposes on the poor.
[Note: While the article’s headline is true, it captures only a relatively minor factoid out of the article’s outstanding content. The tagline, “Yet again, government intervention hurts those it is intended to help,” is also true, but it too is just factoid.]
While many Americans support much more welfare, Americans of every significant persuasion believe that, to some degree, the government should provide financial support to poor people with mental or physical disabilities that prevent them from providing for themselves. So, the question for Americans is not whether there should be welfare, but how much and how. More specifically, the political debate is largely about the dividing lines between 1) who should and shouldn’t be helped, 2) how much help should be provided, and 3) how to help. Except for talk about the decline of two-parent families among welfare recipients, far too little public debate is focused on the negative consequences of financially helping poor people. The destruction of two-parent poor black families is worthy of much attention, but it is only one of many significant problems the welfare system inflicts on its recipients.
The most depressing aspect of the article is that it makes clear that humans have not figured out how to help poor people who are able to provide for themselves without trapping them and much of their progeny in 1) neighborhoods with poor education, stifling subcultures that foster mediocrity and grievances, and are dangerous, and 2) an economic system that incentivizes its denizen not to thrive[i] and is likely to damage the denizen’s general well-being.[ii] The article also shows that over time the system has increased the number of people so trapped—the exact opposite of the war’s stated mission. (It has, however, created a large, growing, and solid block of reliable Democrat voters—which may have been one of LBJ’s objectives.)
As sad as all of that it is, even sadder is that people who are aggrieved are typically much less happy than people who are thankful. Even if the grievance is justified, aggrieved people are handicapped by their grievances. Because humans gravitate toward validations of their beliefs, aggrieved people not only gravitate toward facts and narratives that validate the ideas that hold them back, they are motivated not to do anything that would disprove their reasons for believing their grievances are justified. As President Obama might have put it, it’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to their dysfunctional culture or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them as a way to explain their frustrations.[iii]
Our welfare policies are yet another example of well-intended (at least on the part of empathetic voters—not so much on the part of politicians whose reelections are dependent on dependent voters) policies making matters worse for the poorest people among us, i.e., the people who are supposed to be helped by the policy.
[i] For a more detailed description of these problems and others, see “The War on Poverty Wasn’t A Failure — It Was A Catastrophe.”
[ii] See “is work good for your health and well-being?”
[iii] President Obama said, “It’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”