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National Review Online


The War On Poverty At 50

January 08, 2014

By Kay S. Hymowitz

Conservatives often complain, with some justification, that President Johnson’s War on Poverty did more to increase the taxpayer-supported adult work force than to improve the lives of poor children. But we shouldn’t neglect one of the major reasons that rates of child poverty have not budged in 50 years. The poverty war coincided with a massive cultural shift in attitudes toward fathers. Starting in the mid 1960s, Americans grew increasingly blasé about the universal connection between marriage and childbearing. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was observing the first signs of this transformation when he noted in his legendary 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” that black births outside marriage were on the rise even as marriage-friendly black male employment was also improving.

To be entirely fair, Johnson was deeply affected by Moynihan’s findings and gave a graduation talk at Howard University, which he later called “the greatest civil-rights speech” of his presidency, warning of a crisis in the making. Still, the protest against Moynihan’s paper by black leaders and feminists was so intensely bitter that Johnson dropped the issue and for decades no one in official Washington dared to mention the growing connection between poverty and family breakdown. Today almost three-quarters of poor families are headed by a single mother.

Much as we might condemn government fecklessness, the prevalence of poor single mothers raises challenges for thoughtful conservatives who wish to wage war on today’s poverty. Marriage-promotion programs run by the government have had disappointing results. Though the 1996 welfare-reform law sent a record number of single mothers into the work force and briefly reduced child poverty, its impact on the poor has been limited. The truth is that a low-skilled single mother will have to depend on hefty government assistance even if she is working. Over the past decades — partly in response to changes in the low-wage labor market and partly in response to the inexorable decline of two-parent families — federal, state, and local governments have created an expensive infrastructure that enables and sustains the fragile single-mother household. The support system comprises food stamps, health insurance, subsidized housing, child care, afterschool programs, and in many cases, Social Security disability benefits and special education.

It’s by no means clear how to entirely dismantle this infrastructure, even if it were politically possible — or morally wise — to do so.

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