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Why Is the “War on Poverty” Not Working?

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Fifty years later and the number of poor among us remains essentially unchanged.

Since the 1960s, the United States government has waged a so-called “War on Poverty.” Starting with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the federal government has put into place massive social welfare programs with the aim of eradicating poverty in our country.

The massive programs are still largely in place, but poverty still remains a problem in our country.

Robert Doar believes that Johnson’s approach to the issue combined incompatible ideas, and the conflict has simply made anti-poverty initiatives less effective over time.

You don't have to be a constitutional lawyer — I am not — to know that certain rights, such as freedom of speech and religion, are protected by federal authority through explicit language in the Constitution. Minimum income and health care, in contrast, are not constitutional rights, and they do not enjoy the same kind of protection. Some people believe they should be, but they aren't.

This is the original sin of President Johnson's Great Society: applying an approach appropriate for civil rights to a sphere where the invocation of "rights" does not fit and does not work. And it has led over the years to a misguided effort to use Congress and federal courts to impose uniform antipoverty policies in every state.

Conflating these two ideas has led to the courts and federal government imposing a uniform kind of anti-poverty structure in each state. The implicit belief is that these are things to which people are entitled, and it is the government’s job to provide for them.

These initiatives, often carried out by coercive force, have led to massive federal involvement in individuals' lives. The American founders never desired the federal government to be directly involved with the citizenry, but here we are with the federal government being nearly ubiquitous in our lives.

As benevolent as the intentions might be, such involvement is not without consequences.

I've seen the consequences firsthand — when I was a state official overseeing social services in New York. Technically, I was employed by the state of New York and Gov. George Pataki, but in reality I worked for the federal government. Washington paid the bulk of my salary, and in countless ways, on most of the details of governing, I took my direction from federal officials.

Bureaucrats in Washington D.C. cannot fully understand the complexity of problems in all given regions in a country as massive as the U.S. The problems in New York are far different than those in Wyoming. A top-down approach to addressing these issues is simply not workable.

So what does Doar believe should change?

What that experience taught me: federalism, properly understood, respects the responsibilities of the states and limits the use of federal power. The best approach is to allow states to reach the correct outcomes on their own, without federal intervention. But in some cases, a combined approach can work—when the federal government outlines desired outcomes but leaves the means to achieve those outcomes to the discretion of people in the states.

This approach worked well in New York in the wake of welfare reform—the bipartisan 1996 legislation mandating dramatic changes to cash welfare and enforcement of child support. Congress provided substantial funding for both programs and broad guidance to state officials but allowed each state to determine the details of their programs on their own. Importantly, the federal government holds the states accountable for outcomes—but not process.

For programs like TANF, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, block grants are given to the states along with guidelines for outcomes. The result has been more people coming off of the financial assistance and getting back to work.

Contrast that with SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and Medicaid, which do not delegate duties and grants to states while mandating certain outcomes. The federal government is very involved in these programs at the state level, but they have been unsuccessful in helping people become independent.

Ensuring people become financially independent begins when the states take back their proper role in governance.