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A Retrospective on Johnson's Poverty War

Mises Daily: Thursday, December 26, 2002 by

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Washington loves the analogy—and reality—of war. Let's take a moment to consider one of the most famous uses of that term, the War on Poverty. On March 16, 1964, in a special message to Congress, President Johnson delivered his proposal for what he labeled "A Nationwide War On The Sources of Poverty."

Addressing the assembled Congress, Johnson declared that "because it is right, because it is wise, and because, for the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty, I submit, for the consideration of the Congress and the country, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964."

Boldly declaring "an unconditional war on poverty," President Johnson rolled out a laundry list of programs that he claimed would end poverty in America. Meanwhile, the government's own statistical police and bureaucracy were saying that poverty was already in decline from the highs of the (Hoover-FDR prolonged) Great Depression, as the New Deal and war-time price controls and rationing expired and industrial production and competition were permitted by Washington, D.C.

Undaunted by this fact, Johnson declared: "The Act does not merely expand old programs or improve what is already being done. It charts a new course. It strikes at the causes, not just the consequences of poverty. It can be a milestone in our one-hundred eighty year search for a better life for our people."

If that wasn't enough, Johnson promised that a series of benefits would be produced by his statism, which would flow down to the masses from upon high. Not limiting his ambition to merely handing out money, he claimed that the Act would provide five "basic opportunities:"

  • It will give almost half a million underprivileged young Americans the opportunity to develop skills, continue education, and find useful work.           
  • It will give every American community the opportunity to develop a comprehensive plan to fight its own poverty—and help them to carry out their plans.           
  • It will give dedicated Americans the opportunity to enlist as volunteers in the war against poverty.           
  • It will give many workers and farmers the opportunity to break through particular barriers which bar their escape from poverty.           
  • It will give the entire nation the opportunity for a concerted attack on poverty through the establishment, under my direction, of the Office of Economic Opportunity, a national headquarters for the war against poverty.

As is readily apparent, Johnson's program was designed to subsidize several groups for dependence upon the federal regime, the Democratic Party, and of course, upon Johnson himself. Subsidies and entitlements were to be given to the up-and-coming generations of Americans, to subsidize local governments making them agents of the federal government and strengthening their hold over citizens, to farmers and rural communities, to low-income workers, and to reduce the labor-force with the consequent reduction in competition for wages by subsidizing volunteerist boondoogles. All of this under the personal direction of Johnson for his own personal glory.

Court Historian Michael Beschloss described Johnson's absorption with his alleged role in history:

"So seized was Johnson by the historical and managerial importance of secretly recording his conversations that on his first night as president [after Kennedy's assassination earlier that day], despite all his other worries, he apparently had the presence of mind to ensure that his first conversations in his new job were captured on a ...taping system." (Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963–64 [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997], p. 548).

So even though poverty was in decline, the Johnson administration believed poverty was a "root cause" for many social ills in America in the early 60's, and in the spirit of the age and with the view of the State as what "we all know and love as the Great Problem-Solving Machine," as Murray N. Rothbard called it, Johnson proposed to solve the problem of poverty by creating welfare programs.

As Johnson said:

  • First we will give high priority to helping young Americans who lack skills, who have not completed their education or who cannot complete it because they are too poor. . . . I therefore recommend the creation of a Job Corps, a Work-Training Program, and a Work Study Program.
    • A new national job Corps will build toward an enlistment of 100,000 young men. They will be drawn from those whose background, health and education make them least fit for useful work. . . . Half of these young men will work, in the first year, on special conservation projects to give them education, useful work experience and to enrich the natural resources of the country. Half of these young men will receive, in the first year, a blend of training, basic education and work experience in job Training Centers. . . .  
    • A new national Work-Training Program operated by the Department of Labor will provide work and training for 200,000 American men and women between the ages of 16 and 21. This will be developed through state and local governments and non-profit agencies. . . .  
    • A new national Work-Study Program operated by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare will provide federal funds for part-time jobs for 140,000 young Americans who do not go to college because they cannot afford it. There is no more senseless waste than the waste of the brainpower and skill of those who are kept from college by economic circumstance. Under this program they will, in a great American tradition, be able to work their way through school. . . .
  • Second, through a new Community Action program we intend to strike at poverty at its source—in the streets of our cities and on the farms of our countryside among the very young and the impoverished old. This program asks men and women throughout the country to prepare long-range plans for the attack on poverty in their own local communities. . . .          
  • Third, I ask for the authority to recruit and train skilled volunteers for the war against poverty. Thousands of Americans have volunteered to serve the needs of other lands. Thousands more want the chance to serve the needs of their own land. They should have that chance. Among older people who have retired, as well as among the young, among women as well as men, there are many Americans who are ready to enlist in our war against poverty. They have skills and dedication. They are badly needed...          
  • Fourth, we intend to create new opportunities for certain hard-hit groups to break out of the pattern of poverty. Through a new program of loans and guarantees we can provide incentives to those who will employ the unemployed. Through programs of work and retraining for unemployed fathers and mothers we can help them support their families in dignity while preparing themselves for new work. Through funds to purchase needed land, organize cooperatives, and create new and adequate family farms we can help those whose life on the land has been a struggle without hope.          
  • Fifth, I do not intend that the war against poverty become a series of uncoordinated and unrelated efforts—that it perish for lack of leadership and direction. Therefore this bill creates, in the Executive Office of the President, a new Office of Economic Opportunity. Its Director will be my personal Chief of Staff for the War against poverty. I intend to appoint Sargent Shriver to this post. . . .

Implied throughout Johnson's proposal for the massive expansion of the welfare state is the conventional, but wrong wisdom, that it is now possible to eradicate poverty, not through the division of labor and private property-based production, but rather that the level of general wealth has reached such an alleged level that it is now possible to achieve an equal and high standard of living by forcible confiscation and redistribution.

Johnson ended his "war declaration"—which should really be viewed as an election manifesto—with some telling words on his view of the origin and nature of poverty. For Johnson, poverty did not exist as the consequence of interference and suppression of free market relationships of production and trade. Instead, poverty simply existed because the State did not provide "opportunity" to those who could not fully participate in society.

But in all cases of this, it is the policies of the State itself that has prevented the able-bodied—and able-minded—from being free to produce and trade. From policies such as slavery and caste restrictions, to conscription, forced labor, wage and price controls, guilds, inflation, taxation, wars and propaganda, the state has been the one and only destroyer of opportunity throughout history.

Johnson promised that his war on poverty would take years, and he was right. The War on Poverty has continued to this day and has been an absolute and unmitigated disaster for everyone involved, except for the bureaucrats and the Democratic Party election machine, of course. You could say they were really the sole reasons for the War on Poverty in the first place, as his party had long ago become the champion of central planning and the bureaucratic approach to "solving problems" which would entail creating many classes of voters dependent on the Democratic Party for their continued sustenance.

After all, it was Harry Hopkins, FDR's all-purpose advisor who summed up the purpose of the New Deal: "We shall tax and tax, spend and spend, and elect and elect." It was exactly these sorts of programs that taught people to look to the state, and in particular the party of FDR and LBJ, as the source of opportunity and betterment, which has been born out by statistical research that New Deal spending went to buy votes.

And unfortunately for people everywhere, bureaucracies lend themselves to militaristic forms of organization, which can be seen in the rhetoric Johnson used to describe the opportunity the war on poverty would provide to him, the Congress and the entire state apparatus of control and planning:

It will also give us the chance to test our weapons, to try our energy and ideas and imagination for the many battles yet to come. As conditions change, and as experience illuminates our difficulties, we will be prepared to modify our strategy. And this program is much more than a beginning. Rather it is a commitment. It is a total commitment by this President, and this Congress, and this nation, to pursue victory over the most ancient of mankind's enemies.

Weapons. Battles. Strategy. Victory. Mankind's Enemies. These militaristic metaphors are appropriate indeed. For what better way to describe a declaration of total war against both the productive and unproductive of society? The weapon involved is the full force of the state to tax, regulate and redistribute. Victory would involve the erosion and abolition of liberty as the state would assume the distribution of all property and income. War, the most destructive behavior of the human race, would be elevated to a method for improving the standard of living.

That the state can abolish poverty through theft and handouts was the mainstream view back then, and unfortunately is still the mainstream view today, although it exists in two schools of thought; the old price and wage central planning and redistribution, and the more recent concentration on destroying the value of the money standard through inflation as the method to "lift all boats."

Even those in the mainstream who favor generally free markets, in contrast to the consensus for highly regulated and cartelized markets, still believe the state can bring about prosperity and reduce poverty through inflation, instead of recognizing that inflation impoverishes everyone. These views not only increase poverty, but threaten civilization itself.

Poverty continues to exist today, in Africa, Latin America, India, the Arab/Muslim world, Russia, South and Eastern Europe, China, and tragically in the state-created and perpetuated ghettos of North American "inner-cities" because of statism and the destruction and loss of property rights and liberty. Whether it is in Calcutta, Cairo or the inner cities of America, the State has time after time replaced individuals' rights to their labor and property with bureaucratic directives, agencies, licenses, police, welfare, taxes, subsidies, political favors, vote-rigging, bribery and all other manner of controls that make the inhabitants wards of the state from the cradle to the grave.

The War on Poverty, like many other State programs around the world, can be interpreted as yet another attempt to repeal the Industrial Revolution, which alone made it possible to feed and cloth the hundreds of millions of human beings that otherwise would have starved to death, all the while increasing the standard of living for all who participated in production and exchange.

As Ludwig von Mises said in his essay, Facts About the Industrial Revolution: "The laissez-faire ideology and its offshoot, the 'Industrial Revolution,' blasted the ideological and institutional barriers to progress and welfare. They demolished the social order in which a constantly increasing number of people were doomed to abject need and destitution. The processing trades of earlier ages had almost exclusively catered to the wants of the well-to-do.... But now a different principle came into operation.... Cheap things for the many was the objective of the factory system."

Instead of mass production, State welfare involves attempts to redistribute existing property rather than allowing markets to increase wealth and capital that can be reapplied in the production of new goods and services to increase the standard of living for all.

As Murray Rothbard pointed out in an essay in Making Economic Sense, the amounts spent by federal, state, and local governments since the Great Society of the 1960s totals the staggering sum of $7 trillion. "And what is the result?" Rothbard asked.

"The plight of the inner cities is clearly worse than ever: more welfare, more crime, more dysfunction, more fatherless families, fewer kids being 'educated' in any sense, more despair and degradation.... It should be clear, in the starkest terms, that throwing taxpayer money and privileges at the inner cities is starkly counterproductive. And yet: this is the only 'solution' that liberals can ever come up with, and without any argument—as if this 'solution' were self-evident. How long is this nonsense supposed to go on?"

The War on Poverty has clearly not been to able "solve" the problems it was designed to address. As Rothbard observed, "these problems [are] demonstrably far worse two or three decades after the innovation and expansion. At the same time, the government Problem Solving Machine: taxes, deficits, spending, regulations, and bureaucracy, has gotten far bigger, stronger, and hungrier for taxpayer loot." The results of the War on Poverty and the Great Society, the "massive and expensive attempt to stamp out poverty, inner-city problems, racism, and disease, has only resulted in all of these problems being far worse, along with a far-greater machinery for federal control, spending, and bureaucracy."

But some still might ask "Why did it fail? Why can't the State simply eliminate poverty if it chooses to do so?" In his book, For A New Liberty, Rothbard noted how "the aim of social workers used to be to help [people] get off the welfare rolls as quickly as possible. But now social workers have the opposite aim: to try to get as many people on welfare as possible, to advertise and proclaim their 'rights.'"

Rothbard summed up the achievements of the War on Poverty succinctly:

"Somehow, the fact that more poor people are on welfare, receiving more generous payments, does not seem to have made this country a nice place to live—not even for the poor on welfare, whose condition seems not noticeably better than when they were poor and off welfare. Something appears to have gone wrong; a liberal and compassionate social policy has bred all sorts of unanticipated and perverse consequences."

Only mass production can raise the standard of living for the masses and eliminate poverty. Government can never reduce poverty since it does not produce, but only consumes and squanders wealth. Lyndon Johnson's silly "war" on poverty impoverished those it claimed to help and impoverished all Americans with lost opportunities and lost liberty by weakening and obstructing those institutions that encourage, facilitate and reward productivity and exchange. The War on Poverty was in reality a State-sponsored war on the opportunities of the poor and on all Americans.

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Adam Young writes from Ontario, Canada. Send him MAIL, and see his Mises.org Articles Archive.