In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson launched his famed War on Poverty, declaring: “This Administration, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty.” From the time that Johnson made this declaration, the federal government has spent an estimated $22 trillion on anti-poverty programs — and the level of success of these programs is highly debatable.
Certainly, Johnson’s war had a major effect on senior citizens, as the poverty rate for the elderly declined nearly 18 percent between 1964 and 2015. However, total poverty rates declined less than three percent between 1964 and 2015. Today, 14.5 percent of Americans (nearly 47 million people) live below the poverty line, while the youth poverty rate has reached a stunning 20 percent.
What these numbers do not tell is the story behind America’s poor. Recently, the Department of Health and Human Services published a report that stated that those in impoverished urban areas are more likely to be exposed to and involved with violent crime and drug use. Similarly, the Wall Street Journal reported that impoverished rural areas are currently experiencing a massive spike in the use of heroin and other deadly drugs. But beyond drugs and crime, studies have consistently found that those in poor communities — whether rural or urban — are less likely to go to college, find long-term employment and remain involved stable nuclear family structures.
Some claim that the dark picture of American poverty needs to be fixed by more government intervention and spending. However, according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, the United States currently spends 29 percent of its GDP (when accounted for taxes) on anti-poverty programs — that’s currently the second largest percentage of any country in the developed world (we are only behind France, which stands at 31 percent). Furthermore, when adjusted for inflation, federal spending per person in poverty increased 600 percent between 1970 and 2014. Yet despite the fact that this country spends more than almost every nation on welfare programs and has drastically increased its anti-poverty expenditures, the United States has achieved only marginal success in combating national poverty rates.
In fact, it seems as if even Congress has realized its big-government, big-spending approach to fighting poverty hasn’t worked. A recent study by the House Budget Committee stated: “Congress… has expanded programs and created new ones with little regard to how these changes fit into the larger effort. Rather than provide a roadmap out of poverty, Washington has created a complex web of programs that are often difficult to navigate.”
I firmly believe that if we are to truly tackle poverty, we must wage a new war — a war with radically different tactics and a consciousness of budgetary constraints. For too long we have thought that we can simply spend our way out of poverty — yet the facts tell a drastically different story. I propose that we fight a three front war on poverty: we must reform our broken education system, encourage economic growth and strengthen family structures.
Personally, I believe that a transformation of our education system is the most important step in combating this issue. According to a study by the General Accounting Office, inner city schools, when adjusted for factors such as necessary classroom resources, often spend far less per pupil than suburban schools. At the same time, the study also found that “inner city schools generally [have] higher percentages of first-year teachers, higher enrollments, fewer library resources and less in-school parental involvement.”
The issues that inner city schools face show why the war on poverty isn’t being won — poor students do not have access to the same resources as their wealthier counterparts. Here is where the Department of Education must make drastic changes. Instead of wasting precious tax dollars on massive bureaucratic projects such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, federal educational agencies should direct funding to low income areas. These funds should be used to build pre-college and vocational training initiatives, improve math and reading programs and encourage teacher retention.
Though education is key, economic reforms are also essential. A recent Congressional study discovered that job creation — not increased federal spending — is the most effective tool in combatting poverty. Reforms such as increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, reducing burdensome economic regulations and simplifying the overly complicated tax code would help to grow small and medium-sized businesses and provide good paying jobs in impoverished areas.
Finally, we as a society must do everything we can to help strengthen families in our poorest communities. In 1965, the Johnson Administration issued a report that stated that a central cause of poverty is the crumbling of family structures. In fact, a 2014 study discovered that families headed by a single female were 21 percent more likely to be below the poverty line than two parent households. Thus, society must do all that it can to encourage the strengthening of families.
Of course, the economic benefits of fighting poverty are innumerable. As our rural areas and inner-cities become stronger, our nation’s economy as a whole will grow stronger as well. However, I firmly believe that there is an inherent moral component to combating poverty. All Americans deserve access to economic opportunity and good education. But let me stress this: we cannot fight poverty with the same wasted effort and energy of the past 50 years. Instead of simply aggrandizing government power and wealth, we must provide the basic opportunity for all Americans to achieve economic mobility.
Michael Glanzel is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Cornell Shrugged appears alternate Thursdays this semester.