Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Baines Johnson inaugurated the “Great Society”— an unprecedented plan to use the power of the federal government to end poverty.
Johnson’s aspirations were immense. Upon signing the first major piece of Great Society legislation, Johnson said, “Today for the first time in all the history of the human race, a great nation is able to make and is willing to make a commitment to eradicate poverty among its people.”
Today, a half-century removed from these lofty beginnings, the Great Society has transformed America by permanently expanding the size and scope of the government, redefining the relationship between the state and the citizens it was meant to serve.
But has it helped the poor? Have we eradicated poverty? No. The official poverty rate hasn’t significantly improved since the early 1970s despite a steady increase in welfare spending and profound gains in per capita economic growth. Government welfare now extends to more than 90 million Americans, only 33 million of whom have incomes below the poverty line.
The increasing availability of noncash welfare benefits like health care, food stamps and housing assistance all contribute to a widening disconnect between what people earn and how much they consume. Because public welfare now subsidizes so many everyday costs, the incentives for the poor to increase their income are weak. If getting a better job means losing more in welfare benefits than you would earn from a paycheck, why take the job?
Instead of helping the poor improve their lot and enter the middle class, welfare trapped them in dependence. Not only has the Great Society failed to eradicate poverty, it has undermined the ability of the poor to pull themselves up out of poverty.
In Texas, we’ve worked to limit government’s role and use it to foster a healthy economy rather than increase welfare. And it’s worked. California, by contrast, imposes a heavy tax burden to fund sprawling welfare programs and ends up taxing a 42 percent larger share of state income than does Texas, which enjoys a lower cost of living and higher real personal income.
Growing up in a small Texas town with a single mom, I have many memories of barely scraping by to make ends meet. I remember my mom taking a job at the Glen Rose Public Library for $6 an hour to provide for my two sisters and me.
Within a year of taking that job, my mom realized she couldn’t make it work. So during her lunch hours and after her workday, she leased the small empty space next to the library and transformed it into a flower shop. She was determined to make a better life for her girls, no matter what — and she did.
When Johnson conceived of the Great Society fifty years ago, he made it clear that the War on Poverty was not to be an endless struggle. His goal was “not to make the poor more secure in their poverty but to reach down and to help them lift themselves out of the ruts of poverty and move with the large majority along the high road of hope and prosperity.”
We owe it to them to do better, to return to them as much of the fruit of their labor as possible, and to give them a hand up instead of a handout, so they too can seize the American dream and move along the high road of hope and prosperity.
Rollins is president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a nonprofit, free-market research institute based in Austin.