Greg Weiner at the Library of Law and Liberty blog writes today to remind us that The War on Poverty Turns 50. Yesterday, listening to NPR’s “All Things Considered”, I heard that one of the last things JFK said to LBJ before he died was that the latter had to “do something” about eradicating poverty in America. I paraphrase, but not much. This was not all that had me rolling my eyes. The implication of NPR’s piece was that the War on Poverty had been a great thing, a noble effort. Reading Weiner, I suspect the answer to why they could think so lies here:
Yet despite refusing to commit the resources, the Great Society set ambitious goals. Moynihan, a New Deal liberal, believed in alleviating poverty by channeling public money directly to the poor. The Great Society became obsessed with eliminating poverty instead. The result was a “services” strategy rather than an “income” strategy. The problem with the former, Moynihan argued, was that it actually redistributed income upward, taxing the poor to pay the salaries of middle-class social workers, teachers and other professionals who ministered to them.
(And who listens to NPR?)
What Weiner says about the correct redistribution of income, vide Moynihan, is that all of the social agencies stand in the way of truly helping the poor. Money direct to families would have done the poor more good. Perhaps the employees of the social agencies have an incentive to retain a solid level of poverty in America? Weiner notes that child poverty remains at 20% despite 50 years of "war" against the fact. The Weiner/Moynihan suggestion for dealing with poverty reminds me of George McGovern's plan of 1972. The center of his proposal was this:
I propose that every man, woman, and child receive from the federal government an annual payment. This payment would not vary in accordance with the wealth of the recipient. For those on public assistance, this income grant would replace the welfare system. It has also been suggested that the national income grant could replace certain social security benefits.
Moynihan would only have given that payment to the poor. Skipping his foolishness about taxation, McGovern had this right, "The distribution of income is clearly emerging as the issue that will dominate the American political scene in the closing quarter of this century." Yes, we are still discussing the distribution of income and today we are not quite certain who is winning in the war on poverty. Yet, as I observe here, standards of poverty have changed and that is true all over the world, even in places where redistribution of income by government really does not happen. Even here, today's 20% of children living in poverty in America are not as deprived as those of fifty years ago because our standards of what constitutes poverty have changed. Yet how many would say that today's poor children have a better lifestyle, even if their economic circumstances are better? Such a child today need not starve, but may not eat nutritiously despite many government programs designed to ensure that he eats well. Such a child today has more opportunity to escape poverty through education, but how many take advantage of the fact? We employ better than a million people to cope with our poor population and as Daniel Moynihan predicted, they are the the most advantaged recipients of our social welfare system.
So what is a conservative approach to poverty in America? Have fun arguing about this. The Right of our national politics ranges from acceptance of the status quo (with the caveat of better management thereof) to calls for the abolition of all social services by government. Crafting a conservative consensus on this fundamental political problem appears impossible to me, and as difficult and depressing as any of the other political dilemmas that we face.
Addendum: Read this, by Steve Hayward on Powerline, too.