Opinion: Carolina Journal Opinions

War on Poverty: 50 years, little progress

It’s been more than 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty was passed by Congress.

While well-intended, it is hard to conclude that any of his programs was a success. In fact, when one looks at the metrics — safety, security, drug addiction levels, and high school graduation rates — the War on Poverty has been a colossal flop for both rural America and the inner city.

And the cost of LBJ’s social-engineering experiment has been staggering. As of 2014, America has spent more than $22 trillion to end poverty. And along the way the federal government added more than 80 separate welfare programs, all with the intent of “helping” those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

To be sure, “material” poverty has declined.  According to Census Bureau reports, many households classified as “poor” have enough food, along with the basic amenities associated with middle-class life, such as airconditioning, cable TV, internet access, and personal computers.

But let me be clear: Life in inner cities or rural areas across America is not a picnic. Jobs in many cases are nonexistent, and child poverty is not uncommon. And while opioid abuse was thought to be a problem exclusive to the inner city, in parts of rural America it’s an epidemic. North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District, for example, has one of the nation’s highest incidences of addiction as well as overdoses per capita.

It’s easy to assign blame for the problem — and politicians of both parties routinely do just that. But the fact is there is enough blame to go around.

Democrats consistently have argued that not enough money is being spent to attack the systemic problems of poverty, and Republicans often blame failed Democratic policies.

Money alone is not the answer or America’s inner cities and rural areas would be Utopias. But Republicans have nothing to crow about for their role either — as they have been missing in action for decades. The exception, of course, was the late U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp, who was a champion for those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Kemp described himself as a “bleeding-heart conservative.” He espoused “enterprise zones” for the inner city to encourage economic growth in depressed urban areas, tax concessions for businesses to locate in the inner city, and regulatory relief for entrepreneurs.

Such tax concessions and regulatory relief also could help invigorate rural America as well. Kemp’s ideas had much merit. He also advocated for the idea of school choice to allow the children of low-income families to attend private schools of their choice. Parents and students in rural areas, where options are more limited, also can benefit from charter schools.

But there can be no real progress in addressing poverty in urban or rural America unless we address the addiction problem that plagues our nation.

That requires a cure strategy for those whose daily life revolves around heroin and Oxycodone. It also means that the gangs and drug dealers who peddle poison must be dealt with harshly.

Frankly, there should be zero tolerance for these activities. All available options to local and federal law enforcement should be on the table. Unless the drugs and the violence surrounding them are addressed, nothing else works.

Finally, the partisan bickering needs to stop. The plight of the inner city and rural America is not a partisan problem. It’s an American problem that demands a bipartisan solution.

Marc Rotterman, a senior fellow at the John Locke Foundation, is host of “Front Row,” a weekly public affairs program on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Channel.