It all seemed to make sense. Americans were hard workers, but jobs were scarce. So the 1930s Great Depression’s severe unemployment levels seemed the time for the national government to create a New Deal of welfare programs to assist those in need. Three decades later the U.S. waged a “War on Poverty” committed to ending deprivation and moving all into work and middle-class status. And today President Joe Biden wants trillions more to complete the promise.
Even prior to Biden, the U.S. was already spending $1.16 trillion a year on means-tested assistance, with each poor family receiving on average “roughly $65,000 per year in cash, food, housing, medical care and free education for their children,” according to a Heritage Foundation analysis. The benefits seem substantial. But did they produce the desired outcomes?
Consider the War on Poverty promise to move everyone into middle-class status and employment. Demography expert Nicholas Eberstadt reports the results: “In 1961, 96.9 percent of men 25 to 54 were employed and last year  it was down to 88.2 percent, with 1 in 8 men in prime years not working, more than during the1930s.” That is, relatively fewer workers than in the Great Depression. Prime-age women working outside the home surged in the 1960s and reached a high point of 77 percent in 2000. But that has declined “modestly” thereafter.
How could this decline in employment take place with the trillions invested in work training, higher education programs, and welfare amelioration? The 1996 welfare reform even required all able-bodied welfare recipients to find work. Yes, but there were exceptions for those with young children. And merely attending educational courses or training were counted as “seeking work.” But the central problem, as a 2019 Council of Economic Advisors study concluded, was that most such government programs were not effective. Eberstadt notes that 30 years ago, the U.S. work rate was nearly 10 percent higher than Europe’s. Now the EU slightly exceeds U.S. levels!
There are jobs in the U.S. and, indeed, recently a million or so more openings than people looking for work. And many of the openings do not require technical backgrounds such as in restaurants and hotels. Why do jobs go begging? The government often actually pays people not to work but especially during the COVID pandemic, first paying $600 above the normal unemployment payment followed by historically low work participation, and only improving after the government ended the later $300-per-week unemployment bonus.
How about government-supported spending and generous loans for higher education to build a larger and more competent workforce? A National Student Clearinghouse analysis shows that U.S. colleges and universities actually had 1.5 million fewer students compared with five years ago. Working-aged men accounted for 71 percent of that decline. According to the Department of Education, 65 percent of women received diplomas compared with 59 percent of men, a gap that has been increasing for 40 years. By 2021 women represented 59 percent of college students, men only 40 percent, and the total down. At the same time, fewer women were having fewer children with more of those children being raised outside of marriage.
The old model has failed so dramatically that the proper solution might just be to do the opposite.
Despite billions for education programs, day care, and social services, many children are not faring well. A study by Robert I. Lerman of American University and W. Bradford Wilcox of Princeton University found that “growing up with both parents (in an intact family) is strongly related to more education, better work, and higher income,” and those without fall behind. While nearly three-quarters of adults over age 18 were married back in 1960, today only about half of adults are married. The median age at marriage has risen to 29.8 years for men and to 27.8 for women. In total, 39.6 percent of births in the United States were out of wedlock, for Asian Americans 11.7 percent, for whites, 28.2 percent, for Hispanics 51.8 percent, and for blacks 69.4 percent. Thirty percent of African Americans are married compared to 48 percent of all Americans, and married black men earned an average of $12,500 more a year than unmarried black men.
One of the major reasons for the decline of marriage and births rates is that those who place great importance on marriage and children within marriage tend to be disproportionally religious — and religious participation has been declining. While 91 percent of Americans still believe in God or a higher power and 77 percent pray monthly or more, actual church attendance and its socialization have declined. A 2008 Notre Dame University survey found that religious “abiders” who are active are much more positive to marriage, family, and socialization generally. A study using data from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth found that women who considered religion to be “very important” had more children on average (2.3 children) than women who considered it “not important” (1.8 children).
Government has committed vast funds — in the scores of trillions of dollars — that could in theory have moved much of the population even into the middle class. But judging by having productive work, fruitful education, protective families, and community socialization, the century-long national government commitment to creating a Great Society has failed. As Heritage Foundation experts Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield have explained,
Although President Johnson intended the War on Poverty to increase Americans’ capacity for self-support, exactly the opposite has occurred. The vast expansion of the welfare state has dramatically weakened the capacity for self-sufficiency among many Americans by eroding the work ethic and undermining family structure. When Johnson launched the War on Poverty, 7 percent of American children were born outside of marriage. Today, the number is over 40 percent. As the welfare state expanded, marriage stagnated, and single parenthood soared.
As Rector explained to Congress, there is even an “implicit taboo” in Washington that refuses to discuss the root causes of poverty. When the War on Poverty began, 36 percent of poor families with children were headed by single parents; 50 years later the figure was 68 percent. If poor women who gave birth outside of marriage became married to the fathers of their children, two-thirds would immediately be lifted out of official poverty and into self-sufficiency. If the amount of work performed in poor families with children was increased to the equivalent of one adult working full-time through the year, the poverty rate among these families would drop by two-thirds. Government benefits in fact exacerbate the problems by granting benefits for not working and for having children out of wedlock.
While women tend to receive the government benefits to assist children, it is often men who move in with them so that they do not require education or work for basic survival. When all 18- to 29-year-olds are asked whether marriage is more of a burden than a benefit today, only half disagree, and the young are disproportionately falling away from religion too, especially men. A Wall Street Journal research article using national interviews to explain lower college graduation levels today emphasizes that male students tend not to see value incurring college debt for uncertain futures. They see 500 centers at colleges nationally promoting women and apparently none for men. With 59 percent of student body presidents now women and fewer marrying, men focus upon what one administrator characterized as drinking beer, smoking weed, hanging out, and playing and viewing games, Eberstadt reports, sometimes up to 2,000 hours a year.
Rather than Lyndon Johnson’s goal to raise the poor to middle class, much of the working class has adopted the behavior of the poor — in this case, not going to college, avoiding work, and having children without marriage. Without the support of intact families, of traditional social and work values, and of community and religious associational support, there seem to be few positive role models for today’s men and women. Bureaucratic programs are poor substitutes and even often make matters worse at a cost of tens of trillions of dollars to do so. Every national government program has been tried, and none have worked for those who most need help. (READ MORE from Donald Devine: A Conservative Plan to Replace the Progressive Welfare State in 2024)
The old model has failed so dramatically that the proper solution might just be to do the opposite. Rather than being told how to live by “expert” plans, take the tax money back from the centralized bureaucrats who have caused much of the harm and move the responsibility locally, where average people live. They can stop subsidizing indolence and incompetent training and require honest work for the able-bodied rather than video games. Rather than government plans, cleave more to family, building socialization in churches and communities, getting and staying married with children, and living cooperatively and helpfully with neighbors and friends.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies. He is the author ofThe Enduring Tension: Capitalism and the Moral Order, from Encounter Books; America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution; and Political Management of the Bureaucracy. He served as President Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term and can be followed on Twitter @donalddevineco1.
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