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.