With rising poverty and unemployment, the War on Poverty would seem an incontestably humane and urgent cause. In the words of Bob Geldof, “Something must be done, even if it doesn’t work.” It’s the sort of remark one would expect from a pop musician, but he has a point: We have to try, and we won’t know what works until then.
The problem, of course, is that many things have been tried, and the unsuccessful ones are being dusted off and re-gifted to the American public; if we don’t know precisely what does work, we certainly do know what doesn’t. In a fascinating analysis of the 1970s federal poverty programs, in comparison with Barack Obama’s policy proposals, Steven Malanga of City Journal argues that another War on Poverty is exactly what our country and its underprivileged do not need.
“Despite years of effort and gargantuan transfusions of money,” he observes, “the federal government lost its War on Poverty. ‘In 1968 . . . 13 percent of Americans were poor,’ wrote Charles Murray in his unstinting examination of antipoverty programs, Losing Ground. ‘Over the next 12 years, our expenditures on social welfare quadrupled. And in 1980, the percentage of poor Americans was—13 percent.’”
Malanga touches on urban problems and still more problematic proposals ranging from housing to unemployment, crime to education. To take the last as an example, it is often suggested (not least by Sen. Obama) that the failures of urban schools lie in insufficient federal funding—and to hear tales of public-education inadequacies, who would be inclined quibble? Yet the per-pupil, per-year, spending in New York has now crept above $19,000 for K–12 education, with Newark at $20,000 and D.C. at $22,000. Is more money going to help? Malanga wisely thinks not: “An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study found that most European countries spend between 55 percent and 70 percent of what the U.S. does per student, yet produce better educational outcomes. If some urban school systems are failing children, money has nothing to do with it.”
What is needed is localized effort and accountability, looking back to the successful welfare-reduction and anti-crime policies of the Nineties, not the failures of the Seventies: “Obama may claim to be advancing a twenty-first-century agenda, but his ideas about combating poverty and aiding cities ignore the lessons of the nineties’ reformers and remain firmly mired in the War on Poverty’s vision of cities as victims. . . . Implementing [his campaign's] policy ideas would simply expand the tin-cup urbanism that has kept so many cities in despair for so long. That’s change we can do without.”