Fifty years after President Lyndon B. Johnson launched his “War on Poverty,” the government has spent about $20 trillion on federal and state welfare programs, but the poverty rate has barely budged — from about 19 percent in 1964 to 15 percent today.
Nevertheless, the U.S. poor of the 2010s enjoy a much higher standard of living than did the U.S. poor of the 1960s.
According to Heritage Foundation scholars Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, the typical poor person in America has considerably more living space than does the average European. About 93 percent of poor households assert they always have “enough food to eat,” although 26 percent say they do not always have the foods they prefer. The overwhelming majority of poor households own refrigerators, televisions and cell phones — amenities our great-grandparents, whatever their socioeconomic status, did not have.
This higher standard of living is not captured by the relatively unchanged poverty rate, however, because the bureaucrats who calculate that rate ignore welfare benefits in their calculations.
Still, the poverty rate remains an important measure of the success or failure of the War on Poverty. While it might not tell us exactly how many Americans are truly destitute, it does give us a sense of how many Americans are not earning enough to provide the standard American lifestyle for themselves and their families out of their own income.
Human flourishing is not defined solely by what we have. A person who has more in the way of material things is not necessarily flourishing more than a person who has less, and vice versa. How we acquire what we have matters, too.
Those who aim to eradicate poverty through government transfers of wealth miss this truth. While welfare benefits improve material living conditions, they deny recipients the dignity of earned success, of a sense of themselves as human persons with irreplaceable contributions to make.
As American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks often repeats, earned success is strongly correlated with happiness, just as unearned transfers of wealth are correlated with a lack of happiness.
Going on the welfare rolls increases by 16 percent the likelihood of a person saying he or she has felt inconsolably sad over the past month (even after controlling for poverty and unemployment). Similarly, low-income married couples who receive government assistance report lower levels of marital commitment and satisfaction than low-income married couples who do not receive government assistance.
The War on Poverty will fail as long as those who wage it reduce the human person to his material needs. When, however, they acknowledge the fundamental need of the human person to give of himself in voluntary community to earn his own success, they will be able to identify more appropriate methods by which to alleviate the suffering of those who are poor.
The promotion of marriage must necessarily be among those methods. A child with married parents is 80 percent less likely to live in poverty than the child of unmarried parents.
The promotion of work, worship and a robust civil society, all of which have been linked to increased economic mobility, will also be important. Within that civil society, an increase in private charity and a resurgence of gift-giving among neighbors would mitigate material hardship while simultaneously enhancing personal relationships and creating “a culture of encounter.”
As Brooks put it, “Defending a healthy culture of family, community and work does not mean imposing an alien 'bourgeois' morality on others. It is to recognize what people need to be happy and successful — and what is most missing today in the lives of too many poor people.”
TINA KORBIN DZURISIN is a research associate at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (www.ocpathink.org). She wrote this piece as part of a news package about the war on poverty created by Oklahoma Watch, a nonprofit state news organization. Read an additional column on this topic by Gene Perry in Wednesday’s Edmond Sun E-edition.