Examples of the failures of government, large and small, are pretty easy to come by. Solyndra, the Iraq War, the response to Hurricane Katrina, Obamcare: Take your pick. But in terms of both wasted money and human suffering, it’s hard to find a more egregious government failure than the War on Poverty.
It was 50 years ago today that Lyndon Johnson announced, as the centerpiece of his first State of the Union address, an “unconditional war on poverty in America.” No one could deny that poverty was a serious problem at the time. Roughly 19 percent of Americans were poor, although the numbers had been falling steadily since the end of World War II. Fully 23 percent of children lived in poverty. The poverty rate for African Americans ran to an obscene 42 percent.
American government responded to Johnson’s call by throwing money at the problem — massive amounts of money. Since 1965, federal, state, and local governments have spent more than $16 trillion on a panoply of anti-poverty programs. Last year alone, the federal government spent nearly $1 trillion on 126 anti-poverty programs, ranging from Medicaid to the Undergraduate Scholarship Program for Individuals from Disadvantaged Backgrounds.
There are 33 federal housing programs run by four different cabinet departments, including, bizarrely, the Department of Energy. There are currently 21 different programs providing food or food-purchasing assistance. These programs are administered by three different federal departments and one independent agency. There are eight different health-care programs, administered by five separate agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services. And six cabinet departments and five independent agencies oversee 27 cash-allocation or general-assistance programs. Altogether, seven different cabinet agencies and six independent agencies administer at least one anti-poverty program.
And the result of all this spending? Fifteen percent of Americans still live in poverty. Among children, the poverty rate is nearly 22 percent, barely a point below where it was in when the War on Poverty began. The poverty rate has declined significantly for African Americans, but that has more to do with efforts to end overt discrimination than with anti-poverty programs. Besides, it still remains far too high, at roughly 34 percent.
To oversimplify the math: Federal, state, and local anti-poverty spending totals more than $20,000 for every poor person in America, more than $60,000 per poor family of three. Given that the poverty line for that family is just $18,530, we could theoretically just mail a check to every poor family, wipe out poverty in America, and still save money.
Michael D. Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, heading research into a variety of domestic policies with particular emphasis on health care reform, welfare policy, and Social Security. His most recent white paper, "Bad Medicine: A Guide to the Real Costs and Consequences of the New Health Care Law," provides a detailed examination of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and what it means to taxpayers, workers, physicians, and patients.