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The welfare state grows

By Robert Rector- Heritage Foundation

This article was published August 4, 2014 at 3:23 a.m.

For the past 50 years, the government’s annual poverty rate has hardly changed at all. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 15 percent of Americans still live in poverty, roughly the same rate as in the mid-1960s when the War on Poverty was just starting.

After adjusting for inflation, federal and state welfare spending today is 16 times greater than it was when President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty. If converted into cash, current means-tested spending is five times the amount needed to eliminate all official poverty in the U.S.

How can the government spend so much while poverty remains unchanged? The answer is simple: The Census Bureau’s “poverty” figures are woefully incomplete.

The Census defines a family as poor if its annual “income” falls below specific poverty income thresholds. In counting “income,” the Census includes wages and salaries but excludes nearly all welfare benefits.

The federal government runs over 80 means-tested welfare programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care and targeted social services for millions of Americans. The government spent $916 billion on these programs in 2012; roughly 100 million Americans received aid from at least one of them, at an average cost of $9,000 per recipient.

Of the $916 billion in means-tested welfare spending in 2012, the Census counted only about 3 percent as “income” for purposes of measuring poverty. In other words, the government’s official poverty measure is not helpful for measuring actual living conditions.

Ironically, self-sufficiency was Johnson’s original goal in launching his War on Poverty. Johnson promised his war would remove the “causes not just the consequences of poverty.” As he put it, “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.”

Johnson did not intend to put more Americans on the dole. Instead, he explicitly sought to reduce the need for welfare by making lower-income Americans productive and self-sufficient.

By this standard, the War on Poverty has been a catastrophic failure. After spending more than $20 trillion on Johnson’s war, many Americans are less capable of self-support than when the war began.

This lack of progress is, in major part, due to the welfare system itself. Welfare breaks down the habits and norms that lead to self-reliance, especially those of marriage and work. It thereby generates a pattern of increasing intergenerational dependence.

The welfare state is self-perpetuating: By undermining productive social norms, welfare creates a need for even greater assistance in the future.


Robert Rector is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

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Nodmcm says... August 4, 2014 at 10:46 a.m.

Whose fault is it if there are not enough decent-paying jobs for everyone? We live in a capitalist society, where there are 'winners' and 'losers.' Everyone seems to agree that there will be 'losers' as well as 'winners' in the capitalist economic system, so why complain about the losers, who are the poor referenced in this editorial? No one seems to argue that there will never be 'losers' in a capitalist system, so why not just accept that one of the downsides of capitalism is that there will be 'losers,' the poor primarily, and just go on? Sure, there must be provision for the poor, especially if America is a "Judeo/Christian society," as is argued by the right-wing, conservatives, and Republicans generally. So unless and until a debate occurs regarding whether to continue the capitalist economic system, we are stuck with the 'losers,' unfortunately, and we must take care of them, to remain a modern, decent nation.

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ThinkFree says... August 4, 2014 at 11:54 a.m.

Don't kid yourself, we're no longer a capitalist society. Our government has made the barriers to entry imposing. We're now a crony capitalist society, like China, with very few winners and many losers. However, we could turn this around by deregulating. We just need the courage to do so. The government cannot create propersity. This has been demonstrated in China, Russia, and Detriot. The best thing they can do is get out of the way.

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FreeSpiritMan says... August 4, 2014 at 12:57 p.m.

Thinkfree ......... Just some facts about China, you may not be finding on Fox:
Po ....... you need this info as well.
* In 2012, China became the world's largest trading nation in goods, ending America’s post-war dominance.

* 400 million people have moved from abject poverty to “middle class” as China has become the world’s fastest growing, large economy

* Chinese students have significantly outperformed U.S. students on international educational tests

* China is the world’s largest auto producer

* China now holds roughly 7.2 percent of total U.S. debt, worth around $1 trillion

* It is estimated that 33% of China's international trade will be in Chinese currency—the renminbi—by 2015.
NOW, keep in mind this is a communist country.

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Nodmcm says... August 4, 2014 at 1:26 p.m.

Pobucker, if you let enough people slide into abject poverty, where they are hungry and maybe even starving, then you might wind up with a revolution, a la 1917 in Russia. Those Bolsheviks lined up the rich, AKA Czar Nicholas II and his family, and shot them down. Then the poor, millions of them, "redistributed" the wealth of Russia. We don't want that to happen here in America, so we can't let the poor get too numerous or too hungry, now, can we? Try to think of welfare as 'payment' to the poor to keep them from ganging up on the rest of us. That way, you can envision welfare as something that protects you from harm. Remember, Pobucker, there will always be many more poor in the 99 percent than there are rich folks in the one percent. That's the nature of capitalism, usually lots more losers than winners. So the poor have the numbers, thus we don't want to starve them so much as to give them the motivation to fight the wealthy to eat. Study what happened in Russia in 1917 to see how NOT to treat the poor!

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3rdWorldState says... August 4, 2014 at 2:48 p.m.

Even Mitt understands u need to increase min wage so the pitch forks stay away from the gates.
China is not totally communist. And we are not totally capitalist. To be completely one, of either, would be disastrous. We were much more socialist in the 50 ' s and 60 ' s. Which is funny cuz people want to "take their county back" to those great times (economically anyway). I guess they want higher taxes and more infrastructure spending.

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Packman says... August 4, 2014 at 3:57 p.m.

"Welfare breaks down the habits and norms that lead to self-reliance, especially those of marriage and work." Can anyone say "baby momma culture"?
Who has more incentive to win the war on poverty, Republicans or Democrats? If the overwhelming majority of baby mommas and entitlement addicts vote Democrat it would seem all the incentive to continue to lose the war would go to the Democrats. How else to explain their insistence on continuing with the same failed liberal social policies (like Obamacare, a social policy that will create literally millions of additional entitlement addicts) that are the lifeblood of poverty in America today?

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