Thursday, January 3, 2013

How to Win the War on Poverty

Peter Cove is a disillusioned foot soldier in the war on poverty. In a column at City Journal he tells how he came to believe that that war will never be won as long as the generals leading it are liberals. After explaining the various failures of welfare to get people out of poverty and the success of his own company, America Works, in putting people to work, Cove makes a startling proposal:
My experience with long-term welfare clients has led me to propose a radical solution: that we abolish all cash welfare, as well as food and housing assistance—except for the elderly and the physically and mentally disabled—in order to move from a dependency culture to one of work-first.

This recommendation may sound impractical at a time of high unemployment. But the work-first principle can easily be implemented even in a down economy, as America Works proved by getting jobs for more than 500 ex-convicts in Detroit—a local economy with 14 percent unemployment—in the past two years. After all, despite the economic downturn, more than 3 million jobs per year go unfilled in the United States.
The rest of his column is a rationale for this proposal. It begins with him sharing the story of his own disenchantment with the policies enacted in the War on Poverty:
Nearly half a century ago, I dropped out of graduate school and enlisted as a foot soldier in America’s War on Poverty. Today, I’m still on the front lines, working to move people out of dependency and into employment. But with an important difference: I’ve become fed up with the useless policies that I once supported, and I’m trying to change the strategy of our bogged-down army.

We know for certain that income transfers, the preferred tactic of generations of liberals, have utterly failed to end poverty. My firsthand experience with welfare clients has shown me why: being on the dole encourages dependency. Working at a real job, by contrast, is the surest way for a person to climb out of poverty.

Accordingly, the surest way for the government to fight poverty is to eliminate cash assistance almost entirely and offer jobs instead.

During his all-too-brief presidency, John F. Kennedy signaled that he wanted to reform the nation’s Depression-era welfare system by giving “a hand, not a handout” to the poor. As Charles Murray noted in his magisterial study Losing Ground, Kennedy’s small initiative, which “consisted of a few training programs and other rehabilitative efforts amounting to only $59 million in the 1963 budget, . . . represented a major departure nonetheless,” since it shifted welfare policy “away from the dole and toward escape from the dole.”

When President Lyndon Johnson expanded Kennedy’s program into the War on Poverty, he likewise wanted not to mire generations in dependency but to free them from it. “The days of the dole in this country are numbered,” Johnson promised at the signing ceremony for the War on Poverty legislation in August 1964.

Listening to his soaring rhetoric, I believed that our nation was on the cusp of one of the great peaceful revolutions of modern times: the elimination not only of welfare but also of poverty and want. After all, by the mid-1960s, America was the world’s most affluent society, and economists predicted that the economic boom and high employment rates would continue for many years to come. The “conquest of poverty,” the 1964 Economic Report of the President explained, was “well within our power.

About $11 billion a year would bring all poor families up to the $3,000 income level we have taken to be the minimum for a decent life. The majority of the nation could simply tax themselves enough to provide the necessary income supplements to their less fortunate citizens.” The following year, the government allocated even more than the report had called for—$14.7 billion—to transfer payments....

But the government’s unprecedented expenditures failed to bring about the decline in poverty that Johnson had promised. Instead, they made things worse. Neither city hall nor I comprehended that the “community action” organizations on which we lavished taxpayer dollars would entrench dependency by urging people to get on the welfare rolls.

War on Poverty funds paid for social workers, community activists, and lawyers to organize the poor, but these organizers, far from lifting poor people out of dependency, helped them sign up for more—and more expensive—welfare programs. For instance, the National Welfare Rights Organization urged single black mothers to protest the welfare system’s eligibility restrictions, and the organization’s goal was to flood the system with new clients.
Cove's article should be required reading for every citizen in the U.S. but especially for every liberal Democrat.