Assessing the ‘Great Society’

COMMENTARY Poverty and Inequality

Assessing the ‘Great Society’

Jun 30, 2014 2 min read
Edwin J. Feulner, PhD

Founder and Former President

Heritage Trustee since 1973 | Heritage President from 1977 to 2013

One of the lessons I learned in my first management course is you can’t improve something unless you can measure it. Let’s apply that to government.

As ambitious government programs go, it’s hard to top the “Great Society,” which recently marked its 50th anniversary. President Lyndon Johnson, after all, vowed “to give every citizen an escape from the crushing weight of poverty.”

That’s a tall order. Five decades, nearly $22 trillion and roughly 80 welfare programs later, it’s fair to ask how we’re doing. The short answer? Not well.

Material poverty has declined, to be sure. Census Bureau data show that the average household classified as “poor” not only reports having enough food, but also many amenities, including air-conditioning, cable TV, Internet access and personal computers.

This is not to argue that poor households experience no hardships — far from it. “The average poor person is far from affluent,” write Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield of the Heritage Foundation, “but his lifestyle is far from the images of stark deprivation purveyed equally by advocacy groups and the media.”

In other important ways, though, the War on Poverty is an abject failure. As social critic Irving Kristol has observed, “the welfare state came gradually to be seen less as a helping hand to those in need, a ‘safety net,’ and more as a communal exercise in compassion toward an ever-expanding portion of the population.”

It’s easy to see why it was “ever-expanding”: The War on Poverty created negative incentives. Instead of promoting the growth of healthy families, the welfare system discouraged them. A single mother could receive larger payments from Uncle Sam by remaining single than by marrying the father of her child.

Over time, many fatherless children entered the world. The welfare checks showed up month after month, regardless of how their parents spent their days. As these boys and girls grew up without fathers around, they came to regard such households as natural. The social safety net, designed to be a temporary help to the people in need, instead kept them trapped in government dependency.

This situation continued for three, even four generations until 1996 when a Republican Congress passed historic welfare reform legislation (over President Clinton’s veto — twice) that began turning things around. It transformed the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program into one known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The program required recipients to perform at least 20 hours per week of work or job preparation activities in exchange for the cash benefit.

The results? Overnight, welfare agencies became job placement offices, and people who had been dependent on government began seeking employment. Within the first five years after the reform, caseloads were cut in half. Employment for single mothers also increased dramatically, and child poverty plummeted.

The reform is far from done, though. Today the federal government runs roughly 80 means-tested welfare programs providing cash, food, housing and social services to low-income persons, but it fails to help the recipients become able to provide for themselves.

As a result, Mr. Rector has noted, the United States will spend approximately $14 trillion on means-tested welfare over the next decade. We can’t afford this kind of unlimited growth.

Changing this won’t be easy. As Nicholas Eberstadt points out in the American Enterprise Institute’s recent publication “The Great Society at Fifty: The Triumph and the Tragedy”: “So deeply impressed is the Great Society into our consciousness that, as a practical matter, it is scarcely possible for most citizens now alive even to imagine the American way of life in the days before our huge, activist, modern welfare state came into existence.”

As the 1996 reform has shown, though, change is possible. Indeed, it’s necessary. A truly “great society” owes all of its citizens nothing less.

 - Ed Feulner is founder of the Heritage Foundation.

Originally appeared in The Washington Times