LBJ’s Great Society Programs Are at the Core of America's Poverty Crisis

LBJ’s Great Society Programs Are at the Core of America's Poverty Crisis
January 16, 2014

Nancy J. Thorner

Nancy J. Thorner is a writer, cellist, and Tea Party activist based in suburban Chicago. (read full bio)
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January 8, 1964 marked a half century since President Lyndon B. Johnson presented his State of the Union Annual Message to Congress in which he outlined his "Great Society" program (a $20 trillion taxpayer-funded war on poverty) with its astounding number of proposals to enrich the life of man for the purpose of creating a world that is meant for all men to ultimately have.

Listed under "Opportunity for All" in Johnson's annual message to Congress was the following statement:

... we must open opportunity to all our people. Most Americans enjoy a good life. But far too many are still trapped in poverty and idleness and fear. Let a just nation throw open to them the city of promise:

... to the poor and the unfortunate, through doubling the war against poverty this year.

A year later Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as Assistant Secretary of Labor during the first part of the Johnson administration, devoted all his time trying to formulate national policy for what would become the "War on Poverty" —  the unofficial name for Johnson's Great Society program.

During Moynihan's  address at the Urban Institute in 1966 — in his report titled, "The Negro Family:  The Case for National Action" — Moynihan reeled off the dire statistics about the plight of the African American families. Among the concerns Moynihan touted in 1966:

About a quarter of Negro families are headed by women. The divorce rate is about two-and-a-half times what it is [compared with whites], the number of fatherless children keeps growing. And all these things keep getting worse, not better, over recent years. 

By the 1990's much reflection was being done over Johnson's Great Society programs of the 1960s. What had happened? It is not surprising that different conclusions were reached at the time about how effective Johnson's War on Poverty had been.

Michael Fumento expressed this concern in his June 19, 1992 article in Investor's Business Daily titled "Is the Great Society to Blame? If Not, Why Have Problems Worsened Since the '60s." Fumento expressed then a concern that has become even more troubling in today's atmosphere in the Obama administration.

Some may say, 'Who cares?' Let's stop laying blame and start implementing solutions." Yet, if government is to be part of the solution, some wonder if it isn't necessary to first ask if it hasn't been part of the problem.

On the blame side, George H. W. Bush administration spokesman Marlin Fitzwater blamed the Great Society programs for ignoring "the relationship between people's pride in their community and having a job."

President George H. W. Bush noted how what was intended to be a "compassionate safety net" not only consumed $3 trillion in 25 years, but also trapped many in an endless cycle of poverty that didn't reward individual initiative. The other side predictably argued that the programs were never given a chance to work — though, in fact, they never worked in the first place.

Fumento's 1992 article has statistics that are in keeping with Moynihan's expressed reason for the poverty he observed in 1966 in relation to the single-parent family:

In 1980, there were 6.2 million families headed by single women, making up 19.4% of all families with children. By 1990, that number had risen to 84 million families, or 24.2% of the total. Blacks were hit especially hard. . . .

At the beginning of World War II, the illegitimate birth rate among black Americans was slightly less than 19%. Beginning in the late 1960s the trend rapidly accelerated, reaching 49% in 1975 and 65% in 1989.

Empirical studies back in the '90s, as they do today, have borne out the theory that welfare checks are behind much of the disintegration of the family. Statistics from the '90s:

  • The University of Washington showed that an increase of roughly $200 a month in welfare benefits per family correlated with a 150% increase in the illegitimate birth rate among teens.
  • David Elwood of Harvard University found that of the 3.8 million families currently on AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), well over half will remain dependent or more than 10 years, many others for 15 years or longer.

Now it is 2014, fifty years after President Johnson's 1964, State of the Union address at which he announced an ambitious government undertaking to eradicate poverty, and is this nation any closer to winning the War on Poverty?

This concern remained important enough for President Obama to highlight it in his February 19, 2013, State of the Union Address.

We got single moms out here. They're heroic what they're doing. We're so proud of them. But at the same time, I wish I'd had a father who was around and involved.

According to Robert Rector, a specialist on welfare and poverty at The Heritage Foundation, the war on poverty has been a failure when measured by the overall amount of money spent ($20.7 trillion) and how poverty rates haven't changed significantly since Johnson gave his address back in 1964. Not withstanding, during the Obama administration the poverty level has reached a 50-year high. Rector went on the say that President Obama's anti-poverty effort "are basically to give more people more free stuff." That's exactly the opposite of Johnson's goal which was "to make people prosperous and self-sufficient."

According to Rector, too many government anti-poverty programs still discourage marriage. Statistics show how more than four in 10 children are born to unmarried parents. When the war on poverty started, about 6 percent of children were born outside of marriage.

As benefits swelled, welfare came to serve as a substitute for a breadwinner husband at home through the marginalization of the men who had heretofore headed those families. It is inconceivable today that a record 47 million Americans receive food stamps. That is about 13 million more than when Obama took office.

In commemoration of the 50 years and the $20 trillion spent since President Johnson used his State of the Union address in 1964, to declare his unconditional War on Poverty in America, the Wall Street Journal on January 7 published an opinion piece by Robert Rector: "How the War on Poverty Was Lost."

What an unmitigated disaster. We never learn, no matter how bad the outcome. What do we do?  We double down and believe more welfare will be better.

About all we have accomplished in the last 50 years of this lost cause is to spend $20 trillion (that is with a t, and a very large sum of money); destroy the nuclear family idea (most tragically, blacks suffered most); moved out-of-wedlock birth from around 6% to over 41% (again mostly imposed on the African American community); destroyed any semblance of work ethic among those in poverty; and created a welfare society no economy can afford or sustain.

Imagine if just half of the $20 trillion was devoted to investment in infrastructure, or left in the hands of the private sector. How robust our economy would be? Imagine how strong this country would be if we had a public education system that functioned as it should — to actually educate our children — how strong this country and economy would be.

Based on the weight of many Americans — and in particular, those classified at the poverty levels — we have at least ended hunger.

Nancy J. Thorner

Nancy J. Thorner is a writer, cellist, and Tea Party activist based in suburban Chicago. (read full bio)

Articles By Nancy J. Thorner