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The Great Society at Fifty

What LBJ wrought

May 19, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 34 • By NICHOLAS EBERSTADT
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The War on Poverty was grounded in a set of presumptions about our economy and society that were widely shared at the time by the country’s opinion leaders and decision-making elites. American prosperity was, in this postwar era, finally here to stay​—​and continuing economic advancement could be all but taken for granted. Indeed, the helmsmen of our national economy​—​groups like the President’s Council of Economic Advisers​—​knew so much about how to manage the workings of the magnificent U.S. macroeconomy that they could seriously talk about fine-tuning its performance.

The problem of poverty amid general affluence, for its part, was mainly a technocratic question​—​to be answered boldly through straightforward, official redirection of national resources to fill the country’s “income gap.” Some special programs, however, were also required for addressing conditions in pockets of lingering social disadvantage (urban slums, Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, and other blighted locales). Guided by experts from the academy and elsewhere, these social programs could, with time, systematically convert virtually all of the underprivileged into full participants in the American Dream.

The conceit that possessed the initial troop of Great Society poverty warriors, in short, was that the challenge inherent in the project of eliminating poverty in America was not in essence very different from that of the project for sending a man to the moon. Both tasks could be successfully engineered by a confident government with sufficient resources, know-how, and commitment behind it. This outlook exemplifies what Friedrich Hayek termed “scientism,” pure and simple: misapplication of techniques and theories from the natural sciences to other, patently unsuitable realms.

The scientistic fallacies that animated the original War on Poverty did not long survive their encounters with real, live human beings, as the fates of the Office of Economic Opportunity and other experiments would attest. Nevertheless, official antipoverty programs and policies went on to flourish—at least by the administrative metric of resource expenditures. In 2012, nearly $700 billion in means-tested transfers of money, goods, and services were obtained by recipients of antipoverty benefits. And this does not include the bureaucratic overhead and personnel costs for such programs. At this writing, annual government outlays for U.S. antipoverty programs may have reached, or even exceeded, the trillion-dollar mark.

And programs expressly devised for combating poverty were only one component within the overall schema of social policies intended to redress material want and economic insecurity. For the Great Society also added Medicare to the structure of the American welfare state and arguably prepared the way for more generous, and inventive, outlays from the existing Social Security program. All in all, inflation-adjusted government transfers for social welfare programs soared more than tenfold between 1964 and 2013, and real per capita welfare state transfers were six-plus times higher in 2013 than 50 years earlier. Numerous critics at home and abroad fault the contemporary U.S. social welfare system for what they take to be its punitive austerity. Nevertheless, the share of overall personal income from social welfare transfers jumped from 5.8 percent in 1964 to 17.0 percent in 2013; more than one dollar in six within the overall American household budget thus comes from government entitlement programs, redistributed through social welfare guarantees.

Since 1964, the welfare state has devoted considerable resources to assuring or improving the public’s living standards​—​something like $20 trillion in inflation-adjusted dollars through antipoverty programs alone, by one calculation. What sort of effect have these programs had on deprivation and its attendant miseries? 

If we were to judge the performance of our welfare state solely by the statistical measure invented to gauge national performance in the War on Poverty​—​the “poverty rate”​—​we would have to conclude the whole effort has been a miserable and unmitigated failure. The true picture, however, is rather more complex than that same poverty rate is capable of depicting, though not necessarily much more heartening.

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