The Obama presidency has been distinguished for unprecedented levels of federal social welfare spending. In his second term, President Obama is pursuing new and expanded federal anti-poverty initiatives. There has been a sharp increase in the food-stamp and Children’s Health Insurance programs. Obama has proposed more federal funding for Head Start and pre-school education generally, job training for laid-off workers, and Medicaid. In fact, the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) has bloated the Medicaid rolls. He is even seeking free federally subsidized community college education. I have seen numbers ranging from 79 to 126 federal programs aimed at reducing poverty and an annual price tag of $668 to $927 billion. The number of programs and cost figures vary depending on how one wants to categorize the different programs. Apparently, it isn’t enough for Obama. He wants more.
It’s the appropriate time to examine the federal anti-poverty effort, since this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” when the federal government entered this arena in earnest in an ongoing way. LBJ proclaimed an objective of fashioning “a society of success without squalor.” The obvious question is: What has been the effect?
About the War on Poverty itself, I wrote in The Transformation of the American Democratic Republic that there is, to put it mildly, much doubt among historians and other scholars about whether it was successful. How much it was even needed is in question. The overwhelmingly Democratic Congress at the time seemed to just rubber-stamp LBJ’s domestic policy agenda. Historian Allen J. Matusow of Rice University writes, for example, that there is no evidence that Medicaid provided easier access to health care for the poor or better quality care than the previous charity care. He also says that Medicare—another Great Society initiative—has not significantly affected the lifespan of the elderly. What did happen in the decades afterwards was that these programs added considerably to the increase of health care costs that began with the introduction of private insurance plans in the 1950s. The main economic effects of these programs, according to Matusow, were to transfer income from middle-class taxpayers to middle-class health care professionals and create new inequalities among the states and among the welfare and non-welfare poor. This was a good example of the problem of unintended consequences of government programs—although they might have been at least somewhat foreseeable if better research had been done in the first place.
Head Start has been shown not to give pupils any enduring academic advantage. In fact, there has long been a question generally about whether it is academically counterproductive to start formal schooling at too young of an age. If this is the case, one wonders why Obama wants to pump more money into preschool programs. Perhaps his strong support from teachers unions has something to do with it. There are a lot of jobs at stake. I remember years back someone from the educational community writing that it shouldn’t pay attention to the higher levels of education anymore because the real action—that is, job expansion—was in early-childhood schooling. Actually, Obama’s community college proposal may get the teachers unions chortling anew at the other end. Never mind, of course, that higher education—especially community colleges—is already suffering a decimation of standards because of a flood of academically unqualified students. Another freebie will only exacerbate that.
The revelations in the last few years about inflated placement claims and other problems in the Job Corps program, another LBJ legacy, should give pause to anyone who thinks that federally-funded job training programs are likely to be a smashing success.
There are other significant unplanned effects of federal anti-poverty programs. One, much talked about, is the growth of an ethic of government dependency. Obama, of course, has claimed that the programs have worked (if that’s the case, one wonders why he insists we need more of them and why he keeps clamoring about an increasing income gap). In a certain sense, though, he’s correct: the programs have put all kinds of benefits in the hands of recipients. A 2013 Cato Institute analysis showed that the benefit package (nontaxable), ranging from cash payments to food stamps to rent and utility assistance, which a typical recipient gets is larger in eleven states and the District of Columbia than the average pre-tax wage for a first-year public school teacher. In thirty-nine states, it is higher than the average starting wage for a secretary. So, poverty programs may be “working,” if by that one means that people are being provided for at the price of ongoing government dependency.
When Obama’s initiatives to weaken the work requirements for welfare recipients are factored in, it becomes clear that federal anti-poverty programs provide no incentive—human nature being what it is—for personal initiative or self-improvement. In a certain sense, they promote poverty of another kind: impoverishment of character. This brings into sharp relief the point of Marvin Olasky’s noted book of the early 1990s, The Tragedy of American Compassion, which contrasted nineteenth-century private charity with our era’s welfare state. The older charity came with the condition of the individual working to make himself a better person. The welfare state insures material well-being—and not just what’s needed to survive, as the free cell phones for the poor of the Obama era illustrate—as a matter of right.
It’s no surprise currently that we see nearly thirty percent of all Americans taking part in some means-tested federal anti-poverty assistance program, excluding the school-lunch program. That’s about 90 million people, which is an all-time high. Somehow, one thinks that that wasn’t what LBJ meant by “success without squalor.” He probably also didn’t anticipate the other unplanned effect: that anti-poverty benefits would also go to people above the poverty line. As Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute points out in a recent article, as of 2012 there were twice as many people above as below the poverty line receiving anti-poverty benefits (he calls it “defining dependence upward”). (By the way, before one dismisses analyses by Cato and AEI as being ideologically driven, he should consider that no left-leaning think tanks are likely to even study this for their own ideological reasons.)
Eberstadt mentions another unexpected development of the anti-poverty program era: the exiting of males in their prime adult working years—including young men—from the labor force. He says that this cannot be explained just by the greater presence of women in it or by any educational or health disadvantages. He doesn’t draw the connection directly, but suggests that the “alternatives” presented by anti-poverty programs may have had something to do with it.
Then, of course, there’s the jarring level of illegitimacy and family breakdown since 1965. One cannot say that federal anti-poverty programs caused that. There are probably multiple causes, and we should keep in mind that the War on Poverty came along at the very time that the sexual revolution, the “Me generation” phenomenon, and contemporary feminism erupted. Still, Eberstadt says the programs have made these conditions “more feasible” on a large scale today. He is no doubt thinking of such things as how in an era of loose sexual restraint some may be additionally encouraged to be irresponsible because, after all, if something like an out-of-wedlock pregnancy occurs the state is always there for financial support.
What is to be said about all this from a Catholic social teaching standpoint? Catholics on the political left, who seem to identify the platform of the Democratic party with Catholic teaching and see those Catholics opposing the welfare state as dissenters, don’t blink an eyelash. Even some faithful Catholics defend federal anti-poverty efforts as part of the Christian obligation to help the poor. It’s what’s being done now—what’s available—to address the problem, so they support it and even want to expand it. The leftist Catholics need take seriously Pope St. John XXIII’s admonition that Christians “conform their behavior in economic and social affairs to the teachings of the Church.” Church teaching comes first, not ideology. The well-meaning faithful Catholics have to keep in mind that how something is done is often as important as what’s done. Indeed, that’s suggested by the venerable principle of subsidiarity. If things have to be done, they must not be done at the higher, more distant, more centralized level unless they clearly cannot be done successfully at lower levels.
Pope St. John Paul II indicated that the American experience is not unique. In Centesimus Annus, he called generally for turning away from the “social assistance state” that saps human initiative, requires inordinate public spending, and is more concerned about “bureaucratic ways” than serving those in need. Instead, a renewed emphasis should be placed on family, neighbors, and the Church (#48). Subsidiarity isn’t something that one can take or leave. Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno said that violating it is “an injustice” and “a grave evil” (#79). Even when government has to be in the picture, Pope Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate suggested “fiscal subsidiarity,” where citizens themselves decide how to allocate a portion of the taxes they pay (#60). So, unlike Obama and the left, we don’t just have to accept that public officials and bureaucrats know best.
Nor is subsidiarity trumped by the principle of solidarity, as some in Catholic university theology and social science departments suggest. The principles must work together: solidarity stresses the affinity of different groups in the community and obliges them to assist each other. Subsidiarity specifies how it’s to be done.
Also, the Church hardly embraces a nonjudgmental perspective that would just give things to the poor without expecting them to assume responsibility. John Paul spoke about the necessity of work (Laborem Exercens #16) and the Church has never encouraged indolence.
The obligation of Catholic teaching to help the poor hardly requires us to be oblivious to how effective the efforts are, much less to jump on the bandwagon of every initiative that proposes to do that. As just stated, it does not require a federal or any government-run effort but seems to discourage it when other alternatives are available or can be constructed. Perhaps the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty signals that it’s time to avoid more of the same and look for a drastically different approach that actually might look more like the time-tested and traditional one.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “St. Lawrence Giving Wealth to the Poor” was painted by Jacopo d’Antonio Negretti in 1575.