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The failed War on Poverty

As we mark the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, the U.S. Census Bureau is set to release information showing that America’s most costly war — $22 trillion has been spent on the anti-poverty effort — has been a abject failure.

“Since its beginning, U.S. taxpayers have spent $22 trillion on Johnson’s War on Poverty (in constant 2012 dollars). Adjusting for inflation, that’s three times more than was spent on all military wars since the American Revolution,” says Robert Rector, a Heritage Foundation senior research fellow, in a Daily Signal article Tuesday.

This welfare spending has come through more than 80 means-tested federal welfare programs — many of them administered by the states. These public assistance programs provide health care, housing, cash, food subsidies and even help buying home heating fuel. According to Rector, the total bill for welfare spending in the U.S. last year was $943 billion.

Source: Heritage Foundation

Source: Heritage Foundation

Despite this massive amount of welfare spending, victory in the War on Poverty has remained elusive. As Rector writes, “The present poverty rate is almost exactly the same as it was in 1967 a few years after the War on Poverty started. Census data actually shows that poverty has gotten worse over the last 40 years.”

The disconnect between increased welfare spending and stable poverty rates is a product both of ineffective anti-poverty programs and shifting understanding of what it means to be poor. Critics of the Great Society welfare programs have long argued that the modern welfare state is at best a temporary amelioration of poverty’s symptoms–and at worst a perverse incentive structure that actually keeps Americans stuck in a cycle of generational poverty. As for the shifting understanding of what it means to be poor, Rector writes:

According to government surveys, the typical family that Census identifies as poor has air conditioning, cable or satellite TV, and a computer in his home. Forty percent have a wide screen HDTV and another 40 percent have internet access. Three quarters of the poor own a car and roughly a third have two or more cars. (These numbers are not the result of the current bad economy pushing middle class families into poverty; instead, they reflect a steady improvement in living conditions among the poor for many decades.)

Although the modern welfare state has failed, by most measures, to eradicate poverty, there seems to be no end in sight to increased welfare spending. Data released this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that more than 46 million Americans are now on Food Stamps and more citizens than ever are enrolling in the medical welfare thanks to the Affordable Care Act’s proposed expansion of Medicaid.