This month marks the 50th anniversary of the launching of the so-called War on Poverty by then-President Lyndon Johnson. The goal was to eradicate poverty in America by — surprise! — throwing baskets of money at the problem. In the five decades since, we have spent more than $20 trillion on an enormous array of programs designed to make poor people no longer be poor.
Of course poverty rates have barely changed, but one indicator, often cited by scholars as the single greatest predictor of a future life in poverty, has expanded geometrically: the rate of children born to single mothers.
In 1965, when the War on Poverty was in its infancy, only 3.1 percent of white infants and 24 percent of black infants entered the world with no resident married father in the house. By 2011 those rates were 29 percent for whites and 72 percent for blacks. Overall, as we approached the 50th anniversary of programs designed in part to fix poverty, government had succeeded in underwriting an expansion of the single greatest poverty creator, the single-mother birth rate, to the point that four out of every 10 babies born in America were born to unwed mothers.
It turns out that poverty, at least in the able-bodied, is not something that just happens to you, like catching a cold. It is most often (though not always) the result of poor lifestyle decisions. The much-vaunted War on Poverty has effectively spent more than $20 trillion to underwrite and support those poor decisions.
Clearly there’s a better way. The time has come to “reduce the anti-marriage incentives rife within welfare programs,” Heritage Foundation senior research fellow Robert Rector writes in The Wall Street Journal. “For instance, current programs sharply cut benefits if a mother marries a working father. Reducing these restrictions would begin a long-term effort to rebuild the family in low-income communities. This would be a better battle plan for eradicating poverty in America than spending more money on failed programs.”