Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

At the Library of Law and Liberty, Greg Weiner reconsiders Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s criticisms of the War on Poverty, and suggests conservatives who frequently cite his work on the subject miss Moynihan’s broader point: It was not that too much money was being misspent on the poor, but rather that those resources which were directed at the poor were all too often funneled through the middle class professional classes:

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. Once, accosted by Harvard students over cuts in education spending pushed by the Nixon Administration in which he was then serving, Moynihan replied that they, future teachers doubtless among them, were “defending a class interest.”

Instead of alleviating the material deprivation of the poor, a new class of professions was created to provide services to the poor. This approach would lead to the entrenchment of an entire class of bureaucrats acting as middle men between the poor and the resources the state was distributing, the course of which was to further inflate the power of the state and creating a lobby for the preservation of those interests, making any reform difficult. Where proper resources were directly distributed, Weiner suggests elderly poverty as an example, there was greater success in alleviating poverty.

Moynihan’s thinking on this was influenced by his own experiences of deprivation and the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity which led him to put particular stress on the importance of families in alleviating poverty. Moynihan’s key insight was to correctly view marriage as an anti-poverty program. While marriage is not a panacea for poverty it is a significant contributor to upward mobility. Social welfare policies which encourage marriage and family cohesion such as increasing the “marriageability” of men, through wage supports and the EITC, will be of more long term benefit than creating new programs and new services. Weiner cites a 1965 essay written by Moynihan for America:

Project Headstart, a program in the war on poverty, is one of the most imaginative and promising efforts to bring hope to slum children that we have seen in this generation. Even so, it must be stated that we are paying women—well-qualified, professional women to be sure—up to $9.20 an hour to look after the children of men who can’t make $1.50. If the working class fathers of the city earned a steady $3.00 or $4.00 an hour, would we need a Project Headstart?

As conservatives discuss new approaches to tackling poverty they would benefit from reading Weiner’s piece and building on the insights of Moynihan properly understood. Any approach to alleviating poverty which views the poor as cases to be administered rather than persons to be respected, while ignoring the primacy of the family, will fail both the poor and the nation.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles