The War on Poverty at 50
An National Review Online symposium

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Article Highlights

  • Labor-force participation has fallen to 63 percent. The smallest fraction of Americans since the 1970s are employed or seeking work;

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  • Unemployment among African-American teens has climbed to 38 percent.

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  • Uptake of disability insurance — permanent unemployment for millions — has surged by 20 percent.

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Today marks the 50th anniversary of LBJ’​s announcing his “war on poverty.” What went wrong? What, if anything, went right? What would a real war on poverty look like in 2014? National Review Online hosted a symposium of experts to answer these questions. The following is AEI President Arthur Brooks' response.

On January 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty. How goes the battle?

The past half-century has had its ups and downs, but the past half-decade offers reason for pessimism. Since January 2009,

  • Food-stamp recipiency has increased fully 50 percent. Forty-eight million Americans — one-sixth of our country — require food assistance to get by;
  •  Labor-force participation has fallen to 63 percent. The smallest fraction of Americans since the 1970s are employed or seeking work;
  •  Uptake of disability insurance — permanent unemployment for millions — has surged by 20 percent. On average, a million new people have begun collecting disability every year;
  •  Unemployment among African-American teens has climbed to 38 percent.

The administration is quick to blame the Great Recession (or George W. Bush), and everyone knows the fierce headwind that the economic crisis created. But ultimately, there will be no excuses: History will assign responsibility to the president of the United States. Barring a miracle, the Obama years will be remembered as the time America gave up ground in our War on Poverty.

How could the administration right the ship? It could put genuinely pro-poor policies ahead of the perpetual political campaign. The president’s denunciation of income inequality and call to increase the minimum wage may be handy political cudgels, but neither is a policy that actually helps those most in need. Equalizing incomes per se does nothing to expand opportunity. And as my colleague Mike Strain points out, high minimum wages destroy job opportunities for marginalized Americans.

A better path forward would be to lower the minimum wage while expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit. Add in disruptive education reform and a radically pro-jobs agenda including everything from energy production to corporate-tax reform, and the Obama administration could execute a political turnaround for the ages.

Will President Obama be remembered for a legendary comeback or a historic failure to help vulnerable people? Listen carefully to his State of the Union address. If the president focuses on tangential issues such as income inequality and insists on counterproductive minimum-wage hikes, we will have our answer.

— Arthur Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute and the Beth and Ravenel Curry Scholar in Free Enterprise.

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