Robert Rector’s Misplaced Criticism

Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, has a piece in the Wall Street journal today attacking Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty (to see my response to Paul Ryan’s attack on the War on Poverty, click here). Rector goes a bit hay-wild, essentially saying that the War on Poverty was worthless:

LBJ promised that the war on poverty would be an “investment” that would “return its cost manifold to the entire economy.” But the country has invested $20.7 trillion in 2011 dollars over the past 50 years. What does America have to show for its investment? Apparently, almost nothing: The official poverty rate persists with little improvement.

Rector uses some very sneaky rhetoric here: he’s right that the poverty rate hasn’t improved in a good while, but he presents that as evidence that the War on Poverty was ineffective. To test this claim, let’s take a look at the data from the U.S. Census Bureau tracking poverty rates (the red line indicates the announcement of the War on Poverty by Johnson; some of today’s well-known programs like Medicaid were introduced in 1965):


Contrary to Rector’s view, poverty rates fell significantly in the years following the introduction of the War on Poverty. That’s certainly not nothing. True, the poverty rate was declining even before the introduction of the War on Poverty, but the rate of decline clearly increased after 1964/1965. The stagnation of the poverty rate did not happen until ten years after the program was introduced. If you really wanted to blame a political institution for this, you could look into the administrations of Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan, all of whom took office in the years surrounding 1975. A better approach, I think, would be to realize that the War on Poverty had its limits, and it is time we  think of innovative ways to alleviate poverty.

Rector suggests the following:

As the economy improves, the government should require able-bodied, non-elderly adult recipients in federal welfare programs to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving benefits.

What exactly Rector means by “prepare for work” is unclear. If he means attending school, it is a misguided recommendation — there are plenty of worthwhile careers whose training is on-the-job.

I know, I know — I’ve done a lot of criticizing on this blog, but very little in the way of suggesting ideas better than the ones I (attempt to) confront. Perhaps continuing with my poverty theme I’ll investigate some innovative, potential solutions.