Is the increase in welfare spending strongly correlated to diminishing poverty rates?  The answer is no. When we look at poverty rates starting in 1949 and follow it through time, we see that poverty rates were dramatically falling before the major increases in welfare spending under President Lyndon Johnson.

Throughout the 50s and early 60s, poverty rates fell from close to 35% of the population to around 15% in the mid-1960s. During that time, welfare spending never crossed the $50 billion threshold. It is not until the late 1960s and Johnson’s Great Society initiative that we begin to see a dramatic rise in government spending and government programs to alleviate poverty. Since then, government spending has grown to rise above $400 billion a year without any radical lowering of poverty rates. In fact, the rates slightly increased in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s while spending continued to exponentially rise.

Moreover, there is a great difference between “poverty rates” and “living in poverty.”  As Robert Rector has shown, the immense majority of poor people as defined by poverty rates do not live lives of squalor. In general, families that do experience the kind of poverty that is associated with negative standards of living are families that deal with a host of behavioral problems; issues such as drug addiction, mental illness, and very low work effort are directly associated with cases of abject poverty.

In effect, during that same period, there is something that has exponentially increased and is often present in the families living in abject poverty: single parenthood. In 1960, only 5.3% of American children were born out of wedlock. By 2001, 33.5% of births were out of wedlock. Since 1960, the increase is 632 percent! Having children that way is almost a sentence to a lifetime of poverty. These are fact, you arrive to your moral conclusions.

One thing is certain, next time a bureaucrat tells us that increased government spending to attack poverty is absolutely necessary, you know it is a lie.[1]


[1] See Michael D. Tanner, The Poverty of Welfare: Helping Others in Civil Society (Washington, D.C.: Cato, 2003) pp. 35-37.

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