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Hispanics and the War on Poverty

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Much will be said today, the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, about how it has been lost. In fact, the debate on poverty (like the poor themselves) will be with us all year. But it’s important to remember that LBJ’s war coincided with other social upheavals, such as the end of the marriage culture, the start of the “minority rights” revolution, and a huge surge in immigration, mostly from Latin America.

These immigrants, who were soon agglomerated under the label “Hispanics” by the bureaucracy (a term made in America and only used by others in a different context), became one of the main casualties of the war.

Much attention is paid these days to the subject of illegal immigration. Considerably less is paid to how we integrate the millions of immigrants who’ve come in legally in the past 50 years, or to children who have been born to them, into the pursuit of the American Dream. Little or no consideration is given to the fact that the America they came into — and in many ways the only America they’ve known — was one shaken to the core by the perfect storm that more or less began when President Johnson launched the War on Poverty on January 8, 1964.

The War on Poverty itself has produced today over 80 federal welfare programs that cost about $1 trillion a year (the national GDP average of countries in the OECD, known as the rich man’s club, is $1.4 trillion). The cost would matter less if the programs succeeded in easing Americans out of poverty and helping them become upwardly mobile. The problem, however, is that many of the poor become entangled in the safety net that was supposed to help them.

This happens because of effects that are built into the welfare programs, which can produce vicious cycles that increase the conditions that produce more poverty. Single moms who find a job or a man they want to marry, for example, can stand to lose 80 percent or 100 percent of their benefits. Social scientists talk of “marriage penalties” and “cliff effects.” Marriage and a job are, however, the best ways out of the cycle of poverty.

Immigrants don’t come to this country seeking assistance from the government. Many who say that either do not understand the human condition or fear immigration for other reasons. Instead, immigrants come here searching for freedom and the American dream, at the very heart of which lies the promise of upward mobility.

Government however foists welfare on immigrants and sees Hispanics as a prime target, and the Obama administration has been second to none in this area, going out of its way to tear down the inner pride and resolve to make it on their own that the vast majority of immigrants come with.

One of the worst examples of this — that we know of — was when the Obama administration was caught trying to entice Hispanics to go on food stamps by placing messages in Spanish-language radio advertisements that were made to sound like radio soap operas, or telenovelas.

In one of the USDA-produced soap operas, one of the protagonists said to a friend insisting that she sign up for food stamps, “I don’t need anyone’s help. My husband earns enough to take care of us.” Her friend mocks her, saying, “When are you going to learn?” Eventually the woman gives in and enrolls her family in food stamps.

And who can forget Obamacare Girl, the poor woman whose face adorned the snake-bitten website of the Affordable Care Act until it was mercifully taken down? If she looked vaguely Hispanic to many of us it is because she was a model from Colombia who immigrated to this country legally. She teared up recounting her experience on ABC News.

But we know why the Obama administration chose a Hispanic face for the program. At last count, Hispanics were not signing up for Obamacare in great numbers, but the administration won’t give up. Up on the HHS website one can find this:

For Latinos, like other racial and ethnic minorities, the law will address inequities and increase access to quality, affordable health coverage, invest in prevention and wellness, and give individuals and families more control over their care.

These are the messages that Hispanics who started coming into this country in great numbers after Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act and ended the Bracero guest-worker program received every day. Schools stopped teaching otherwise. As for the culture, all that those of us trying to decode this country got was TV shows like All in the Family or Maude, which presented a dark side of America.

We are enjoined (by the Bible and most major religions) to assume good intentions until we know otherwise, and thus we must resist the temptation to think of the past 50 years of the War on Poverty as an attempt to create liberals and Democratic voters. Rather, many liberals are outraged by injustice and believe the best way to close the gap between rich and poor is through government assistance.

But good thinking liberals must consider what has been the result of all these efforts. The illegitimacy rate of Hispanics is today a stratospheric 53 percent, and it rises every year. This is worrying because there’s a near consensus that high out-of-wedlock rates are closely linked to all sorts of dysfunctions such as high truancy and drop-out rates, unemployment and incarceration. (As James Q. Wilson once quipped, the data on this is now so strong “that even some sociologists believe it.”)

Causality is difficult to determine but correlation isn’t. This worrying rise has coincided with the jarring changes of the past 50 years.

It’s not insignificant that the politician today delivered a devastating indictment of the War on Poverty was Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants who came here looking for the American Dream. It is a tragedy that programs that were put in place to help people reach it ended up impeding the process.

 - Mike Gonzalez, Vice President of Communications for the Heritage Foundation, is writing a book on Hispanics due out this September.

Originally appeared in the National Review Online

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