Dignity & Justice

The War on Pover⁠t⁠y was a war on d⁠i⁠gn⁠i⁠⁠t⁠y

January 13, 2023

Dignity & Justice

January 13, 2023

Trillions have been spent, but dignity and justice have been left behind.

This month, we mark 59 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson began the war on poverty, an extensive government-led social welfare program started by his administration intended to end poverty in the United States. In the decades since then, more than $25 trillion of American taxpayer money has been spent to defeat poverty. Not only has the initiative failed to eradicate poverty, but it has also been a war on dignity and justice. 

By disincentivizing work, the War on Poverty took away the ability for many to earn their way out of poverty. It took away their dignity by forcing them to remain beholden to the government for subsistence. You may be familiar with the Success Sequence, a formula for success that virtually eradicates poverty. It has been found that 97% of those who follow the sequence – get at least a high school education, work full time, then marry before having children – are not poor when they reach adulthood. This is true of people from all backgrounds, ethnicities, races, genders and walks of life. But government programs discourage all of these things. The War on Poverty discouraged work in particular.

“The best route out of poverty remains a job,” writes Michael D. Tanner of the Cato Institute. However, by making government benefits exceed the minimum wage, “For many people, we have made welfare a smarter choice than work.”

The Brookings Institution agrees that the War on Poverty has subverted the Success Sequence to the detriment of those in poverty. “Rather than look to government for the complete solution to poverty, we should also focus attention on three factors that are directly linked to poverty and are under the control of individual Americans – education, family composition, and work,” they wrote. “Finally, nonwork is the surest route to poverty.” 

By not only reducing incentives to work but actually increasing incentives not to work, the War on Poverty has stripped people of dignity. The dignity of a job, of earning and of finding their own way out of poverty. It’s unjust. But that is not the only way the program has failed justice. 

Criminal justice reform is also a key piece of lifting Americans out of poverty, and the War on Poverty has done nothing in that sphere. Again, Michael D. Tanner of Cato explains. “Large numbers of people in poverty are burdened with a criminal record that makes it far more difficult for them to find jobs. Moreover, dragging poor and minority youth into the criminal justice system severely limits the pool of marriageable men, and a wave of fatherlessness afflicts poor communities.”

The War on Poverty has put many in a cycle of dependency that is difficult to escape. With a focus on dignity and justice, the war can still be won.