This year marks the 50th anniversary of the “War on Poverty” (announced in January of 1964) and the “Great Society” (announced 50 years ago yesterday). These were America’s two great experiments in using the power of the federal government to transform and radically improve the country. Fifty years and some 15 or 20 trillion dollars—depending on how you count—is a pretty good test and plenty of time to conclude that it has failed.
As I have argued elsewhere, the result of the War on Poverty has been to ameliorate some of the effects of poverty, but not to ameliorate poverty itself. In other words, the result has been to “make the poor more secure in their poverty,” which is precisely what LBJ promised not to do. As I pointed out more recently, LBJ’s claim that this would lead to a Great Society of elevated spiritual refinement is—well, let’s say it is even more preposterous now than it was when it first emerged from the lips of a foul-mouthed political opportunist.
It seems beyond the point to rehash these old arguments, precisely because it has been so long and the results are so clear. If the War on Poverty were going to end poverty and its pathologies, it would have done so already. Since it didn’t, it’s time to move on to something else. For the political right, this means moving on from criticizing the Great Society programs and tackling for ourselves, based on our own principles and our own observations of economic reality, the question of how we can help make it possible for more people to pull themselves up out of poverty and into the middle class, and from the middle class to wealth.