Government, Do No Harm: Re-thinking the War on Poverty

National Review Online asked me to contribute a short piece to its symposium on the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” Here were my thoughts:


After 50 years and trillions of dollars, the War on Poverty has brought new meaning to an old phrase: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”


Would any of the War on Poverty’s architects drive through our nation’s worst ghettos or enclaves of rural poverty and think, Mission accomplished? Or would they be appalled at the now-entrenched fatherlessness, the multi-generational poverty, and the addiction to “the draw” — the monthly government check that sustains entire local economies?


It’s time for a new anti-poverty program, one that begins with a seemingly modest step — a step, however, with transformational potential. It’s time to tell the government, “Do no harm.”


In other words, stop hurting the poor.


How does Big Government hurt the poor? Let me count the ways:


 By trapping students in failing public schools, with meaningful reform held hostage to teachers’ unions and the entrenched bureaucracy;


 By imposing lengthy jail sentences for even nonviolent, petty crimes, thus saddling young men with criminal records that render them largely unemployable while also sending them to prisons that double as veritable graduate schools in crime;


 By regulating small businesses so thoroughly that becoming an entrepreneur is increasingly a rich man’s game; and


 By creating legal regimes surrounding marriage, family, and sexuality that de-privilege marriage, create the illusion of single-parent autonomy, fund ghastly abortion mills, and have all together helped spur increases in fatherlessness that do more than anything else to perpetuate poverty.


This list could go on and on. At present, we have the worst of both worlds. Big-government anti-poverty programs foster dependence and drive our nation deeper into debt at the same time that other big-government programs actively harm our nation’s most vulnerable citizens.


The message is simple, but the execution is difficult. Government, stop hurting the poor. Citizens, extend your hands to your brothers and sisters in need. That’s a “war on poverty” I’d sign up to fight.


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  • Nick

    how do you respond to the fact that the nations with the strongest educational rankings also have very strong unions? And the fact that most expert opinion suggests that public opinion of (or respect for) teachers is one of the most important aspects of a successful education system and the US is one of the lower ranking countries in that regard?

    Also, how is big government the cause for long-term jail sentencing? Is bad government not the cause? Libs and Cons alike are calling for a review of the sentencing structures. Is the small government solution to this problem privatized prisons? How could a profit driven prison system be good for inmates?

    Does an unregulated market have NOTHING to do with poverty? Can the government do nothing legislatively to protect the most vulnerable? Imagine if William Wilberforce had decided to only try and influence the slave market in order to end slavery and not tried to use government to legislate on the morality of slavery. Even Adam Smith realized that some sort of regulation was necessary.

  • Surprise123

    I’m so happy that liberals AND conservatives are talking about poverty now. And, BOTH can contribute substantively to the conversation:

    Conservatives are right: religion is, perhaps, the #1 way to create social capital, trust and connection among people, first and foremost from one generation to the next, and secondly, even among those who are not related by blood (kith verses kin). In communities of few resources, this allows the consensual transfer of wealth from one generation to the next in the future, and, in a more limited way, the consensual transfer of wealth from those with many resources to those with few in the present.

    Widespread social capital, social trust. made possible by certain types of religions in populations of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, is important where society has broken down, or where government does not serve the needs of the people (as in the inner cities).

    Liberals are right: “religion” in and of itself is not enough. First and foremost, not all religions are equal in their ability to promote social capital, social trust, in populations of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds. And, second, religion alone cannot deal with the tidal wave of economic changes that have swept through our country over the past 30-40 years: millions upon millions of jobs and billions upon billions of dollars of economic opportunity lost to automation and offshoring to an authoritarian Communist regime.
    I’m very concerned that this new hyper-world economy, an economy that promotes automation, robotics, and offshoring to the most oppressive, exploitative regimes open to free trade, will not direct enough financial capital into our inner cities and even into our now severely threatened middle class to allow the social capital that does exist to transfer into trans-generational wealth.
    For myself, I’d like to see our government privilege those companies that provide stable, long-term family-supporting jobs to American citizens in the United States over those that don’t. Sure, efficiency will fall some (and there may be less robots — but, hey, robots never turn into consumers that grow the economy, whereas human workers do), but community, resiliency, continuity will grow.
    Just my two cents….