The violence and self-destructive outrage in Ferguson Missouri is not what happens when a verdict doesn’t go your way. It’s what happens when you’re force to confront the brutal reality of life. And that reality for many in Ferguson and other inner-city communities is that there is no opportunity, no hope, and no way out of the crime ridden, drug infested neighborhoods into which they are born, and in many instances, will prematurely die. The outrage in Ferguson is what happens when America breaks her promise.
Fifty-years ago, President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty. In his speech, he put forth his vision of the “Great Society.” It was a promise of a utopia where children would be educated, cities rebuilt, lives enriched, and people liberated from the boredom and restlessness of the work-a-day world. It was a bold vision, a courageous idea, but was it achievable? Could any nation build such a society?
The belief was that if any nation could do it; the United States of America could. We’d survived the Great Depression, won the Second World War, became the world’s first economic superpower, and were winning the race to put a man on the moon. There was nothing we couldn’t do. We assembled the “best and the brightest,” and set out to win the war on poverty. Within 2 years of LBJ’s address, Congress enacted over two hundred major pieces of legislation, and more than a dozen landmark initiatives. It was the largest expansion of the Federal Government in history, and a jump start to five decades of entitlement spending that would exceed 22 trillion dollars.
How are we doing, are we winning the war on poverty? Well, in 1965 when LBJ declared war on poverty, the poverty rate was 15 percent, and today it’s still 15 percent. However, today, 57 percent of the children in Detroit live in poverty, as do 54 percent of the children in Cleveland, and 47 percent of the children in Buffalo, and on and on across the major urban centers of America. So, I guess the answer would have to be; not very well.
What happened? America sincerely tried to be the Good Samaritan. We saw a neighbor in need, delivered him to the inn keeper, opened our wallets and said, “Here, take what you need.” However, unlike the Good Samaritan of scripture, we never returned to check-up on our neighbor. Had we, we would have realized that we had checked him into the “Hotel California.”
Today, there are 126 Federal programs fighting poverty. We spend $20,000 a year for every poor person in America, or $60,000 for a family of three. Between the Federal and State governments, we spend a trillion dollars a year on entitlement programs. Now, if you consider that the Federal poverty level for a family of three is $19,790, there should be no poverty in America, but that’s not the case. Why?
Well, there are tens of thousands of federal, state and local bureaucrats in the business of fighting poverty, and for them at least, business is booming. Private organizations that deliver services to the poor, like the Salvation Army or Catholic Charities, spend less than 10 percent of their budgets on overhead and administration. More than 90 cents of every dollar that they spend, goes directly to aid someone in need. The government, on the other hand, spends between 40 and 50 percent of their budget on over head and administration, meaning that less than 60 cents of every dollar goes to help someone in need. The ones most benefiting from our entitlement system are the ones working for the government. We’ve spent 50-years and $22 trillion investing in the entitlement bureaucracy, and created an entire class of citizens who are terminally dependent upon the government for their subsistence. That’s the entitlement state, “You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.”
How then do we eliminate poverty? The truth is, that as long as human beings have free-will, poverty will always exist. People will always make poor decisions and find themselves in dire circumstances. That is an unfortunate part of the human condition. However, we can certainly do better than a 15 percent poverty rate.
Between 1940 and 1965, the poverty rate in United States dropped from 39 percent to 15 percent. It was so high in 1940 because America was still coming out of the Great Depression. Then World War II mobilized the entire nation, and created the world’s first economic superpower. The war decimated the cities and factories of Europe and Asia, but left America untouched. The US factories that built the trucks, tanks and plains that won the war, returned to building the automobiles, televisions, and washing machines that would be bought by the ever expanding middle-class. America prospered while the rest of the world rebuilt. That coupled with the best public education system in the world, and the construction of the interstate highway system that gave the rural poor access to the jobs in urban factories, and “most” Americans had an unlimited number of opportunities to better their lives.
Opportunity, not entitlements, reduces poverty. Entitlements breeds dependence. Opportunity provides a path to prosperity and independence. As the philosopher Maimonides said: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” The entitlement state will never reduce poverty because the government agencies and bureaucracies that administer the entitlement programs have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. The Great Society and war on poverty has been a colossal failure. There will never be peace, until we can restore the true promise of America. And the true promise of America is an abundance of opportunity for all its citizens, to exercise their God given free-will to advance and improve their lives.