Quora Question: Can We Win the War on Poverty?

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Kadee Ingram, 28, holds her son Sean, 2, at SHARE/WHEEL Tent City 3 outside Seattle on October 13, 2015. Shannon Stapleton/reuters

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Answer from Charles Tips, retired entrepreneur, founding CEO of TranZact, Inc.:

When can Americans declare that the War on Poverty is a victory or defeat? The answer is a big, fat never, and that’s by design.

The War on Poverty was introduced by Lyndon Johnson in his 1964 State of the Union Address as part of his Great Society initiatives. They were enacted in bills over the next couple of years primarily.

You can see per the chart above that poverty appears to have leveled off shortly after the passage of the War on Poverty bills. Is that failure? Defeat? No, the Democratic Congress shortly after changed the operative definition of poverty from an absolute one to a relative one so that it would always allow for the distribution of government benefits to between 10 and 15 percent of the U.S. population.

A relative definition of poverty insures that the “poor” will always be with us. Poverty, in absolute terms, has improved enormously (similar to the dotted red line) over the ensuing years (despite, not because of, the War on Poverty). For example, in the 1970 census that followed the passage, 82 percent of Americans in the middle class (the middle quintile of income) reported owning a refrigerator. In the most recent 2010 census, 99 percent of those in the lowest quintile (our poorest) reported owning a refrigerator.

So, why have the Democrats not declared victory in the War on Poverty and refined its goals accordingly? Because it was never about fighting poverty. More than a decade after the passage of the War on Poverty bills, it came out that Johnson had sold his legislative package to key Southern Democrats by promising to lock in the black vote for "200 years."

Clearly, you do not hold an entire population in thrall for ten generations by solving their problems, but by entrenching them. Here’s an example of that thinking in action: The Venezuelan minister of education admitted that the aim of the regime’s policies was "not to take the people out of poverty so they become middle class and then turn into escuálidos" (a derogatory term to denote opposition members). In other words, the government wanted grateful, dependent voters, not prosperous Venezuelans.”

Non-progressive Democratic president Bill Clinton passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 that he claimed “ended welfare as we know it.” Contrary to the (often strident) warnings of progressive Democrats, the bill ushered in a period of growth and betterment for the poorest off among us (reflected in the chart above). With progressive Democrats fully in charge again, we’re back to full-bore government benefits.

It will never be possible to declare the War on Poverty a success or failure. But it certainly has been a success on the terms President Johnson foresaw.

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