House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has been talking about the failure of government programs to eradicate poverty since at least October 2012 when he declared that "in this war on poverty, poverty is winning." And he's right. Since President Lyndon Johnson began the War on Poverty in 1964 as part of his Great Society initiative, more people than ever are dependent either in whole or in part on government assistance. Despite the $15 trillion Washington has spent in the war on poverty over the last 49 years, it is nowhere near being won. The biggest reason, Ryan said during a July 31 hearing on Capitol Hill, is that "we focus on how much money we spend," instead of "on how many people get off public assistance - because they have a good job."
Ryan's hearing included testimony from Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs. Weinstein claimed the percentage of people living in poverty has declined since 1960, from 22.2 percent of the population to about 15 percent in 2011. But, Weinstein points out, the government played a minor role in the decline because "the jobs and education programs were too modest, and the food and health care expansions did not directly count in the calculation of poverty income."
While Weinstein is correct that the percentage of Americans living in poverty has declined, the actual number of poor Americans has increased. Census Bureau data presently counts more than 46 million Americans living in poverty, compared to 36 million in 1964. The poverty rate had actually been declining when LBJ declared the War on Poverty in 1964, but it resumed an upward march during the Carter administration. Under President Reagan, the number of people living in poverty declined, then made a steep jump in the early 1990s under the first President Bush.
The Bush upsurge continued under President Clinton, which prompted the 1996 welfare reforms, including the work requirement that was gutted by President Obama in 2012. Offering a waiver to the work requirements that resulted in millions of Americans finding jobs and leaving the government dole was a body blow to the most successful welfare reform effort the federal government has ever undertaken.
Nearly one-third of Americans currently receive government assistance of some kind, and the numbers are growing. Food stamp and other anti-hunger programs cost American taxpayers $88.6 billion last year, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture reporting that 101 million Americans are receiving aid from at least one of a dozen different government programs. Ryan emphasized in his hearing that, rather than proposing spending cuts to welfare programs, the government should determine which programs work, then shift funding to those.
Ryan is right to emphasize the importance of identifying which government programs work, so that successes can be boosted and programs that fail can be weeded out. But as long as success in the war on poverty is defined primarily by how much money is spent or, as is the case with Food Stamps, how many people receive assistance, then Americans will have less incentive to find gainful employment and feel the pride of providing for themselves and their families.