Can the War on Poverty Still Be Won?

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Can the War on Poverty Still Be Won?

Consider the virtual lack of progress in the so-called, “war on poverty.” In 1964, President Johnson made that declaration of war when the poverty level was at 19 percent and already falling. The plan was for the effort to be a temporary measure that would greatly reduce poverty.

Johnson overlooked one important fact: Government was involved, which meant programs would take on lives of their own with no end in sight. Nearly 50 years later, with programs still growing and more being added, this has proven to be the case.

Given human nature, government programs that provide free benefits tend to increase the very problems they are trying to solve. In the case of programs targeting poverty, a significant number of people allow themselves to fall into a position where they can benefit from a program. And of course, those administering the programs are in no hurry to work themselves out of their jobs. 

The numbers tell the story.1,2

  • Since 1964, nearly $12 trillion has been spent by the federal government on fighting poverty.
  • During this same time period, state and local governments spent an additional $3 trillion.
  • Combined federal, state, and local annual spending on poverty programs amounts to an average of $20,610 for every “poor person” in America, which, for a family of three adds up to $61,830.
  • The poverty level dipped to a low of 11.1 percent in 1973.
  • In 2011, there were an estimated 47 million people in the U.S. below the poverty level; that works out to roughly one in six Americans.
  • In 2012, the poverty rate is already at 15.1 percent and is expected to continue climbing. When it hits 15.2 percent, it will be as high as it’s been at any time since 1965.

With the poverty rate bottoming in 1973 and now headed toward 1965 levels, it is clear that the $15 trillion spent on the “war on poverty” has not achieved its stated objective. In fact, the poverty rate has risen dramatically since 2006, in spite of massive increases in spending.


This is particularly disturbing when you consider that, for a brief time in the 1990s, the poverty rate did decline appreciably. This was because of the confluence of a healthy economy, a tightening of welfare eligibility standards at the state level, and the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Responsibility Act of 1996.

 Included in this act is the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program that requires able-bodied adults to work, or prepare for work, for at least 30 hours per week...

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