Republican Sen. George Aiken of Vermont became a political icon when he encouraged President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966 to declare victory and withdraw from the war in Vietnam.
Forty-four years later, as Americans ponder annual trillion-dollar-plus federal deficits as far as the fiscal eye can see and a national debt approaching $14 trillion, it is worth considering whether Aiken’s suggestion bears application to LBJ’s other call to arms: the war on poverty. LBJ declared that war in 1964, and it is still being fought today.
Besides creating Medicare in 1965 — which has become the costliest of all entitlements — LBJ’s mobilization of millions of federal bureaucrats, consultants, academic experts and political opportunists ignited the social-welfare spending explosion that has plunged the nation into a fiscal abyss.
Whatever its original nobility of purpose, government data demonstrate that LBJ’s war on poverty has been lost. Despite everything Washington has done, the official poverty rate stubbornly stays within a range of 11 to 15 percent of the national population, year in and year out.
As the Heritage Foundation’s Morning Bell noted earlier this year, the U.S. has spent $15.9 trillion since 1964 on means-tested welfare programs. After adjusting for inflation, welfare spending is 13 times higher today than it was in 1965. Welfare spending has grown more rapidly than Social Security, Medicare, education and defense.
But instead of producing an economic Valhalla, Washington remains mired in a war without end, with no exit strategy and a casualty list in the millions: According to the Census Bureau, a record-high 3.7 million Americans fell into poverty in 2009. The out-of-wedlock birthrate is now 40 percent, and the black out-of-wedlock birthrate is 72 percent. When the war on poverty began, the out-of-wedlock birthrate was just 7 percent.
Former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson won plaudits last week for their efforts as co-chairmen of President Barack Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Their report recommended a host of measures designed to close the deficit without causing riots in the streets like those seen recently in Britain and Greece.
But the Bowles-Simpson report ignored the elephant in Washington’s living room represented by the failed war on poverty and its paradigmatic assumption that federal spending and regulation can lift the poor, assure security to the elderly and guarantee health to all. A new paradigm is needed: that the most important thing government can do to combat poverty is to encourage a growing economy that creates millions of new jobs, rewards hard work and provides opportunity.
The Examiner will return often to this issue in the days ahead, because it’s not enough just to balance the federal budget and pay down the national debt.