February 16, 2014

Fighting poverty requires inclusive effort

Last month was the 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s War on Poverty. I wish we had made more progress after half a century.

While we have spent tens of trillions of dollars to fight poverty, the proportion of our population living in poverty has barely budged. Had we not spent trillions, Columbia University researchers estimate the poverty rate would have been about 10 percentage points higher. We might conclude that massive spending ensured poverty did not get significantly worse.

What happened to Johnson’s hand up out of poverty?

Lately, I have been pondering the meaning of the American Dream. I first thought it afforded Americans the opportunity to climb the economic ladder. I don’t know if we have come near to realizing that dream. Ours is still a nation that offers little practical likelihood that the mass of those without money and resources can gain access to the best schools and then enter the highest echelon of American privilege.

Rather, the American Dream may refer to an opportunity we all have to better ourselves, whether or not we avail ourselves of that opportunity.

For many, this dream is academic. It requires an aspiration that is easily frustrated by a sense the system is rigged, or worse, by a failure to realize that greener grass even exists elsewhere.

I am grateful that Johnson’s dream of eradicating poverty has produced social-welfare nets that keeps those most in need from descending toward complete destitution. I lament that we have failed to reach down to those held just above destitution and empower them to realize the American Dream of opportunity and self improvement. After tens of trillions of dollars of spending, it seems that the hand up is more elusive than ever.

The trillions we have spent is actually the easy part. In America, we seem good at throwing money at symptoms rather than solving the disease.

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