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Posted on Tue. Jan. 14, 2014 - 12:01 am EDT

COLUMN

Fifty years after war on poverty began, we have more poor than ever

Prediction of 'victory' in 1976 proved just a little optimistic, for obvious reasons

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“They're doing the jobs Americans won't do.” – a common argument supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants.

“I can't name a time where I met an American who would rather have an unemployment check than the pride of having a job.” – President Obama, Jan. 8, arguing for an extension of long-term unemployment benefits.

Thirteen years from now is “the target date for ending poverty in this land.” – Sargent Shriver, President Lyndon Johnson's chief “war on poverty” adviser, in 1964.

“Fifty years ago, President Johnson declared a war on poverty to help each and every American fill his or her basic hopes.” – President Obama, Jan. 8.

“There is always inequity in life . . . Life is unfair.'' – President John F. Kennedy, March 21, 1962

“The growing inequality is morally wrong,” – President Obama, July 6, 2013, on the need for government to promote economic fairness.

I could go on, but you have no doubt spotted the pattern already: Where the welfare state's ability to lift Americans out of poverty is concerned, faith in government-induced economic equality reflects a theology that is apocryphal at best – and at worst downright heretical.

Perhaps the president really doesn't know anyone who would rather cash a government check than get up every morning and go to work, but in the real world such people aren't hard to find. I've known several people who didn't get serious about looking for work until their benefits were ready to expire, and I've known others who could have worked full time but didn't because it would have meant lower pay than the combination of their part-time job and government benefits.

For all the undeniable good achieved by to $20 trillion or so America has spent fighting poverty since 1965, the downside has been at least as obvious, and that doesn't even include an out-of-control national debt that has ballooned to $17 trillion and shows no sign of slowing.

As Investors Business Daily notes, the poverty rate was in sharp decline when Johnson began his war on poverty, having fallen from almost 23 percent in the late 1950s to 17.3 percent in 1965. Since then, the poverty rate has remained relatively flat, hovering between 11 percent and 15 percent.

Even so, a record 46.5 million Americans are no considered “poor,” a record 47 million are on food stamps (up 50 percent during Obama's presidency), and a record 9 million are receiving disability payments (up 20 percent under Obama).

Are there really jobs Americans “won't do”? If so, isn't it logical to assume at least some of that six years of recession-justified long-term benefit extensions (up to a high of 99 weeks) might have something to do with that?

It's not politically correct to suggest such a correlation, of course, especially when Congress is debating a three-month extension that, unless offset by spending cuts, would add another $6.4 billion to the deficit. And because no one wants Americans to starve – or starving Americans to vote – some sort of extension is almost sure to pass.

Curiously, the extension is being debated despite last week's announcement that the nation's unemployment rate had fallen from 7 percent to 6.76 percent. But hidden in that supposedly good news was the hard truth: Employment in December grew by only 74,000 jobs, far below the 197,000 expected. The unemployment rate dipped, in other words, only because 347,000 people left the work force – meaning the percent of the employable population not even looking for work is at its highest level in 36 years.

President Obama insists he wants to help the poor and middle class, but with the possible and welcome exception of his “Promise Zones” proposal last week, he routinely says and does things that discourage the very things that create jobs: investment, wealth and, yes, profit.

Because people are not equally intelligent, thrifty, hard-working or lucky, any economic system will – and should – create winners and losers. Government should provide a temporary safety net to those suffering through no fault of their own, but that net should never become so comfortable that it is viewed as a legitimate substitute for honest work – whatever that work is.

Government should try to create the conditions that allow more people to become "winners" -- not impose policies or incentives that create even more losers through dependency.

Nobody's even talking about winning the war on poverty any more. Turns out Christ was right, after all: The poor will be with us always, because some people will always have less than other people.

I suppose that means we'll always have politicians, too.

kleininger@news-sentinel.com


This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.


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