There is a war that has lasted longer than the one in Afghanistan. It is the so-called “war on poverty,” launched by President Lyndon Johnson during his State of the Union address on Jan. 8, 1964.
While the poverty rate dropped from 17.3 percent to 11.1 percent in the ensuing decade, it has remained between 11 percent and 15.2 percent ever since, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Interestingly, as Census figures show, the poverty rate had already begun to decline starting in 1959, five years before the LBJ initiative was announced.
Many conservatives have argued that anti-poverty programs have created a permanent underclass that has little motivation for doing what is necessary to raise them from poverty to independence. These include, among other things, two essentials: a decent education (denied by the left, which opposes school choice), and a strong two-parent family unit.
In his budget proposal Monday, President Trump is asking Congress to cut certain entitlement programs that have arguably failed to motivate people to emerge from poverty and instead have subsidized and sustained many in poverty.
The Washington Post’s reporting is typical of what the left has promoted for more than 50 years. It says the proposed budget “...takes a hard whack at the poorest Americans, slashing billions of dollars from food stamps, public health insurance and federal housing vouchers, while trying to tilt the programs in more conservative directions.”
If the more liberal directions aren’t working, why not try a more conservative direction? It was the late Jack Kemp, former congressman and secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, who best addressed the conservative and most compassionate approach to ending poverty when he said: “Conservatives define compassion not by the number of people who receive some kind of government aid, but rather by the number of people who no longer need it.”
That should be the goal of most federal programs and not just the ones addressing poverty. They should be measured by a standard of success, not seen as permanent entitlements into which increasing amounts of money is poured.
I recall an experience I had a few years ago in Singapore where I asked a taxi driver about that country’s poverty rate. At the time, he said it was less than 2 percent. I asked how that was possible. He replied that Singapore has no welfare. The government will help the truly needy, but if one is able-bodied and doesn’t work, he said, that person gets nothing from the government. The threat of an empty stomach is a prime motivator to find a job and take care of one’s self.
That has been the missing ingredient in America’s broken welfare system. Programs need to be reformed and the approach to poverty re-imagined, and not just by the government, but also by those who are stuck in poverty, believing there is no way out.
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. The key to a better life is inspiration, followed by motivation, followed by perspiration. A change of mindset can produce a change in virtually any circumstance.
President Trump’s budget proposal offers an opportunity to open a new front in the anti-poverty campaign, one that has the potential for success. It worked once before when President Bill Clinton and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich forged what was called the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.” The left screamed that people would starve. They didn’t. In fact, many found jobs and discovered they no longer had to rely on government. That produced then and can produce again a sense of self-worth that is necessary for the improvement of any life.