With the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Baines Johnsons declared War on Poverty, much is being written about perspectives on levels of success, value of the effort, and only a little about the length and cost of a war that has been declared, yet never correctly embraced.
Since 1964 there have been over 80 federal programs put into action for this war, all requiring means tests of those within the programs and all focused on Americans who live in poverty. Estimates as high as $22 trillion have been applied to the costs of these programs. Not included in these numbers are the myriad state and local programs, the nongovernmental programs, the efforts of groups in collective efforts such as United Way, and that which has been done through our houses of worship. It has not been a war without effort, engagement, and expense.
But alas, the numbers do not tell a story of success. Surely there have been untold millions of people who have received aid and assistance during these 50 years seeking ways to escape the relentless grip of poverty. There are success stories in every program of those who have been able to emerge; climbing, even slowly, the economic ladder of success and emerging from the endless generational cycle of despair. For these success stories the programs have been a miracle lifeline. But this war is not unlike the real wars of gunfire and destruction, where politicians rise to question, from the beginning, both the purposes and the plans. Is there an exit strategy from the beginning? When do you declare victory or accept defeat and pursue other options?
If you are one of the beneficiaries of these trillions of dollars, you might wince at those who question the programs' values. However, if you are one of the tens of millions paying the taxes to support these programs, you have the right to inquire, to analyze and to ask whether the juice is worth the squeeze.
One of the elements missing in the evaluation of program value has been analyzing program effectiveness. My view is that, unfortunately, federal government programs are like the kudzu we see growing relentlessly along our highways. Kudzu had a purpose when brought here from across the seas, originally intended to serve as a fast growing answer to erosion. It did that well -- but it was also a fast growing plant that could not be contained, slowly covering native landscape and squeezing the life out of other assets. Some federal government programs often perform the same way; noble in original intent, with some levels of effectiveness and the ability to continue unfettered and unabated.
We have not won the War on Poverty. Perhaps it will be as written in Matthew 26:11, where Jesus said, The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. Perhaps there will always be a strata of society at or below the bottom rung. But, is it not our responsibility to make sure that generations do not stay there, that pathways out of poverty exist, and that one thing no family should ever be burdened with is permanent despair? We must reflect upon these questions as we evaluate whether the War on Poverty has value as it exists, or whether we need a national discussion about what we have been doing and a greater focus on how to do it better.
In my heart, I believe this is what George H.W. Bush was talking about when giving his inaugural address. He called for an era of the offered hand, referencing the need to get beyond partisan rancor to truly address the ailments of our society. In this address he stated, And so, there is much to do; and tomorrow the work begins. For our problems are large, but our heart is larger. Our challenges are great, but our will is greater. His son, Bush 43, coined the phrase compassionate conservatism, now bandied about by those who seek to mock civility rather than embrace constructive efforts. It is not the labels we place upon ourselves that matter, it is the efforts we expend in truly seeking to solve what ails us in this post-modern world.
Congress and the president need to do some soul searching about how we have structured this longest of wars. The numbers do not lie. We have failed. It is not a loss in battle; it is a loss of opportunity. In 1969, there were a little more than 27 million Americans living below the poverty line. Current estimates reveal that more than 47 million Americans live below this same line, a 74 percent increase in pure numbers.
Our population has grown during these same years, a 57 percent increase. These are numbers on a page, but in homes across America the despair lingers while the machinery of government motors on. We are the land of opportunity. We are a country George H.W. Bush envisioned as he prayed in his address, "Use power to help people. For we are given power not to advance our own purposes, nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power, and it is to serve people. We have lost ground in our War on Poverty. We must do better!
Dr. Moore is president and CEO of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida.