14 January 2014

The Fifty Years' War

You may have seen or heard a lot of commemorative commentary this month on the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson's declaration of a "war on poverty" through a package of social programs. Poverty, of course, has not been defeated, and may never be, but a debate has lasted as long as the war itself over whether it has accomplished or could accomplish anything. The criticisms have grown familiar. Johnson's programs have been blamed for fostering a culture of dependency contrary to his stated purpose to empower people, while the redistribution of wealth that fueled the programs supposedly retarded the entrepreneurial economic growth that many see as the only real remedy for poverty. A smaller chorus to LBJ's historical left argues that his programs were inadequate to their purpose for a variety of reasons, while the first set of critics would counter that throwing more money at the problem would not have changed the result. The War on Poverty itself didn't cripple the American economy, while the fact that it was launched, and deemed necessary, at a time of what would now seem phenomenal economic growth suggests that economic growth itself isn't the ultimate answer. Arguably, no matter how an economy thrives, people at the very bottom will still suffer, both relatively and objectively, so long as the economy and the larger society run on competitive principles. Relative poverty or relative suffering may not be so bad if objective poverty doesn't mean objective suffering, but that begs whether the war was waged on poverty or suffering. If the latter, the results are mixed depending on your point of view. The war has left behind more of a safety net than existed before, though the more hedonist liberals may never be satisfied with what government can offer, but amelioration hasn't really become empowerment in many cases. What does empowerment require? One side still says that right behavior, whether that means studying hard or getting married to support your kids, is a sine qua non for which government can offer no substitute. Another side points out that no amount of right behavior guarantees that jobs will be waiting for those who jump all the hurdles and pass all the tests. Some critics of the War on Poverty, or of liberalism in general, seem to will the end without willing the means. They insist that everyone who is able must work, but they never say jobs must be created. Such critics may assume that the Market will find places for anyone with skills, or they may not really care whether everyone finds places or not. A nation's commitment to ending poverty can be questioned when many of its citizens still assume that poverty (if not misery) is a fair outcome for failure to be productive and/or competitive. Those citizens may say sincerely that they don't really want anyone to be poor and miserable, but they'd probably also say that whether anyone ends up poor or miserable is that person's responsibility first if not entirely. To the extent that the War on Poverty was meant to empower the children of the poor through education, there remains disagreement over whether the responsibility to educate our children is the state's (or society's) in part or the family's entirely. Consensus has to be reached on questions like these before "total war" on poverty can be waged. Americans need to decide whether improving the lives of the poor, when the poor can't do it themselves, is necessary to national prosperity, an end unto itself, or less important than other national priorities. Half a century of Democratic and Republican talking points have done little to clarify the issues. At best, the semi-centennial should inspire people at least to start the debate over again.

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