The War We Lost

n honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the “War on Poverty” – the only “war” at which the United States has ever been comprehensively defeated unto humiliation – John C. Goodman analyzes the results.

On the one hand, avoiding poverty – or rising out of it, with time and hard work – is at least conceptually fairly simple (although obviously requires work, patience and perseverence):

We now know a lot about how behavior affects poverty. In fact, if you do these four things, it’s almost impossible to remain poor:

1. Finish high school,

2. Get a job,

3. Get married, and

4. Don’t have children until you get married.

Simple – right?

But throughout the “War on Poverty”, we’ve been disincenting those exact behaviors:

So how does welfare affect behavior? In the late 1960s the federal government sought to find that out in what Charles Murray calls “the most ambitious social science experiment in history.”

The experiments were all conducted by social scientists who believed in the welfare state and had no doubt about its capacity to be successful…Randomly selected people were assigned to a “control group” and an “experimental group.” The latter received a guaranteed income, and the program even used Milton Friedman’s term for it: a negative income tax. The largest, longest and best-evaluated of these experiments was SIME/DIME (Seattle Income Maintenance Experiment/Denver Income Maintenance Experiment) in Seattle and Denver. And the results were not pretty. To the dismay of the researchers, they largely confirmed what conventional wisdom had thought all along. As I reported in “Privatizing the Welfare State”:

  • The number of hours worked dropped 9% for husbands and 20% for wives, relative to the control group. For young male adults it dropped 43% more.
  • The length of unemployment increased 27% among husbands and 42% for wives, relative to the control group. For single female heads of households it increased 60% more.
  • Divorce increased 36% more among whites and 42% more among blacks. (In a New Jersey experiment, the divorce rate was 84% higher among Hispanics.)

BTW, these results have been studied and studied over and over again and there is a large literature on them ? almost all of it written by researchers who detested the outcomes. Good summaries are provided by Charles Murray and Martin Anderson.

It’s like going to war – the real kind – and giving your soldiers Nerf guns.

The results?

Poverty is stuck at 1966 levels, and has been for almost fifty years.

Spending has soared in absolute dollars and in share of GDP.

And it’s entirely unsustainable – and things that can’t be sustained, won’t.