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Why we've been losing the war on poverty since Lyndon Baines Johnson

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Forty years ago, Lyndon B. Johnson defiantly declared war. No, it wasn’t against communism and communist forces in Vietnam. Instead the tall lanky Texan declared war on poverty. Among his prepared remarks to a joint Congress, LBJ confidently said: “…Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it, and above all to prevent it.”

A cursory study of the 36th President of the United States reveals a young teacher exposed to some of the deepest levels of poverty and destitution along the US-Mexico border, which helps explain why he took on such an honorable and ambitious goal when he became the country’s chief executive.

Unfortunately, after four decades and billions upon billions of dollars in federal poverty programs, the number of Americans living in poverty has actually increased. According to the latest from the Census Bureau, the number of Americans living in poverty stands at around 50 million. While the government officially defines the level of poverty as being around $11,500 for an individual, for a family of four that number is around $23,550.

For Hispanics, these numbers are even more sobering. According to a recent Washington Post article, Hispanics now make up the largest group of children living in poverty: the first time in U.S. history that poor white kids have been outnumbered by poor children of another race or ethnicity.

And with the number of Hispanics in the United States expected to increase in the years and decades to come, these numbers reveal a problem symptomatic of not just one ethnic group, but of the entire collective state.

And while in the four decades since LBJ declared war on poverty we have seen a dizzying array of technological advances that few could have predicted, a time traveler would hardly blink an eye when hearing federal policy prescriptions on how best to reduce poverty. The arguments can be boiled down this way: in order to reduce poverty, increase the role and budget of the federal government.

With the exception of the landmark of 1996 Welfare Reform Act, Congress and subsequent Presidents have adopted a similar mantra, desperately hoping to unfurrow a banner reading: “Mission Accomplished” on the War on Poverty, but with no success.

Which is why if there is ever a time to hear dissenting voices on how to effectively reduce poverty, now would be as good a time as ever.

For starters, let’s affirm what works. For example, on the pernicious number of Hispanic children living in poverty, a large majority come from single-parent households.

My colleagues at The Heritage Foundation have spent years looking at these numbers and have published a paper aptly titled: Marriage – The Greatest Weapon Against Child Poverty. Among the findings: Compared to children raised in intact families, children raised in single-parent homes are more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems.

Additionally, the current welfare system actually incentivizes individuals to view government assistance programs as permanent, instead of temporary.

This is completely opposed to the spirit of Lyndon B. Johnson’s vision to eradicate poverty: “For the war against poverty will not be won here in Washington….it must be won in every private home.”

Underscoring the perverse incentives was a recent report that cited that in a majority of states across the country, living on welfare paid better than working a minimum wage job.

These are facts too often dismissed because of petty politics.

Rather than politicizing poverty as we have been doing for the past 40 years, let’s emphasize the real need that civil society must play if we want to decrease the number of Americans living in poverty. This of course is not to say that the federal government should not play a role in this honorable crusade, but let’s resist the desire to completely outsource this real problem to our public elected officials.

Our country will thank us.

 - Israel Ortega is the Strategic Initiatives Manager of communications at the Heritage Foundation.

Originally appeared on Voxxi.com

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