Since this year will mark the 50th anniversary of the "war on poverty," we can expect many comments and commemorations of this landmark legislation in the development of the American welfare state.
The actual signing of the "war on poverty" legislation took place in August 1964, so the 50th anniversary is some months away. But there have already been statements in the media and in politics proclaiming that this vast and costly array of anti-poverty programs "worked."
Of course everything "works" by sufficiently low standards, and everything "fails" by sufficiently high standards. The real question is: What did the "war on poverty" set out to do -- and how well did it do it, if at all?
Without some idea of what a person or a program is trying to do, there is no way to know whether what actually happened represented a success or a failure. When the hard facts show that a policy has failed, nothing is easier for its defenders than to make up a new set of criteria, by which it can be said to have succeeded.
That has in fact been what happened with the "war on poverty."
Both President John F. Kennedy, who launched the proposal for a "war on poverty" and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, who guided the legislation through Congress and then signed it into law, were very explicit as to what the "war on poverty" was intended to accomplish.
Its mission was not simply to prove that spending money on the poor led to some economic benefits to the poor. Nobody ever doubted that. How could they?
What the war on poverty was intended to end was mass dependency on government. President Kennedy said, "We must find ways of returning far more of our dependent people to independence."
The same theme was repeated endlessly by President Johnson. The purpose of the "war on poverty," he said, was to make "taxpayers out of taxeaters." Its slogan was "Give a hand up, not a handout." When Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark legislation into law, he declared: "The days of the dole in our country are numbered."
Now, 50 years and trillions of dollars later, it is painfully clear that there is more dependency than ever.
Ironically, dependency on government to raise people above the poverty line had been going down for years before the "war on poverty" began. The hard facts showed that the number of people who lived below the official poverty line had been declining since 1960, and was only half of what it had been in 1950.