Black America Before LBJ: How the Welfare State Inadvertently Helped Ruin Black Communities

“A COLOSSAL AND GIANT FAILURE”

by Sam Jacobs, Ammo.com, ©2020, CC by 4.0

“Building the Great Society: Inside Lyndon Johnson’s White House” by Joshua Zeitz (Ammo.com)

(Jan. 10, 2020) — “We waged a war on poverty and poverty won.”

The dust has settled and the evidence is in: The 1960s Great Society and War on Poverty programs of President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) have been a colossal and giant failure. One might make the argument that social welfare programs are the moral path for a modern government. They cannot, however, make the argument that these are in any way effective at alleviating poverty.

In fact, there is evidence that such aggressive programs might make generational poverty worse. While the notion of a “culture of dependence” is a bit of a cliché in conservative circles, there is evidence that this is indeed the case – that, consciously or not, the welfare state creates a culture where people receive benefits rather than seeking gainful employment or business ownership.

This is not a moral or even a value judgment against the people engaged in such a culture. Again, the claim is not that people “choose to be on welfare,” but simply that social welfare programs incentivize poverty, which has an impact on communities that has nothing to do with individual intent.

We are now over 50 years into the development of the Great Society and the War on Poverty. It is time to take stock in these programs from an objective and evidence-based perspective. When one does that, it is not only clear that the programs have been a failure, but also that they have disproportionately impacted the black community in the United States. The current state of dysfunction in the black community (astronomically high crime rates, very low rates of home ownership and single motherhood as the norm) are not the natural state of the black community in the United States, but closely tied to the role that social welfare programs play. Or as Dr. Thomas Sowell stated:

“If we wanted to be serious about evidence, we might compare where blacks stood a hundred years after the end of slavery with where they stood after 30 years of the liberal welfare state. In other words, we could compare hard evidence on “the legacy of slavery” with hard evidence on the legacy of liberals.”

Here’s a peek into how black America has been a victim of LBJ’s Great Society and War on Poverty.

Defining Terms: What Is the Great Society and the War on Poverty?

Before going further, we must define the terms “Great Society” and “War on Poverty.” These are two overlapping, but somewhat distinct terms that are, in any event, not the same as “welfare” as a whole.

The “War on Poverty” refers to one part of the Great Society, namely the part focused specifically on poverty. When the War on Poverty was started in 1964, the poverty rate in America was 19 percent. Seeing an opportunity to recreate the same New Deal magic that had propelled President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the White House in four successive elections 30 years earlier, Johnson pushed his War on Poverty.

It’s worth noting that the New Deal has some success to boast in terms of lifting some extremely poor communities, particularly those in the rural South, out of grinding forms of poverty. This was through, for example, mass electrification and other similar campaigns, which radically redefined the experience of the poor in the United States. One can argue about the ethics of redistributive wealth programs, but one cannot argue about whether or not, for example, the electrification of the Tennessee Valley elevated people out of crushing and abject poverty – it did.

There are four primary initiatives of the War on Poverty:

  1. The Economic Opportunity Act: This was the flagship effort of the War on Poverty. It created the Community Action Program, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) and Job Corps.
  2. The Food Stamp Act of 1964: This created a food stamp program that remained largely in place until President Bill Clinton “ended welfare as we know it.” At this time, food stamps were open-ended and could, in theory, be a means of feeding a family for life.
  3. Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1964: This is known as the most sweeping legislation impacting education passed by the United States Congress. It sought to level an alleged “achievement gap” in public education. It has been reauthorized by both Democratic and Republican presidents under the names Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994, No Child Left Behind Act of 2004, and the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015.
  4. Social Security Act of 1965: Created both Medicare and Medicaid.

The Economic Opportunity Act, in particular, was insidious in that it gave broad leeway to create programs without Congressional approval or oversight. An example of this is the Head Start program, which is shown to have only extremely limited and short-term effects on the ability of children to succeed in public schools.

The Great Society refers to a far broader set of programs, some of which still exist today, others of which were casualties of both the massive budget for the Vietnam War, LBJ’s other pet project, as well as the passage of time and subsequent Republican administrations. It’s difficult to summarize the Great Society as a whole, precisely because its scope was so broad. Education, health, welfare, culture (the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, for example, is a product of the Great Society), transportation, the environment, housing, labor and rural development were all areas where the Great Society had some hand.

Whereas the New Deal has demonstrably impacted communities with crushing and severe forms of poverty, the Great Society has demonstrably not only not “worked” by any available metric, it has also created a negative impact, most severely felt in the black community in the United States.

This article will make the case that the Great Society is the greatest disaster to befall America’s black community since slavery.

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