On Jan. 8, 1964, just weeks after ascending to the presidency following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson delivered his first annual State of the Union Address to Congress.
In his initial comments, the president laid out a series of policy objectives, one of which was a declaration of “all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States.”
“This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America,” he said.
Johnson declared in his speech that this objective, along with his other domestic priorities, “can be done without any increase in spending.”
“In fact,” he promised, “under the budget that I shall shortly submit, it can be done with an actual reduction in federal expenditures and federal employment.”
In the following months a Democrat-majority Congress passed, and Johnson signed, some of the most liberal-progressive legislation to date, creating “a number of programs to help the poor, including Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and Head Start,” Time magazine – which went on to select the president as its “Man of the Year” – reported.
Collectively, these programs – and Johnson’s agenda – became known as the “Great Society,” and their goal was to lift those who were living in poverty out of poverty.
At the time, the poverty rate in the U.S. was anywhere from 15 percent to 19 percent, depending on whose numbers you use.
Fast-forward to the current day and age.
During his broadcast Wednesday night, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly attempted to address the issue.
During his opening “Talking Points” segment, he said the poverty rate in 1964 “stood at 14 percent,” adding that today, decades after the Great Society was enacted, the rate hovers around 14.3 percent for virtually no change in the percentage of the population considered living below the poverty line.
Politifact and other sites have since “fact-checked” O’Reilly, hitting him for misreporting the actual rates. Quoting U.S. Census Bureau data, they say some 17.4 percent of American families were living below the poverty line, so we’ll use that as our baseline.
If the rate in 1964 was 17.4 percent, and today it’s 14.3 percent, that’s a difference of about 3.1 percent – after four decades.
Now, at what cost this “progress”?
“Federal and state spending on social welfare is approaching $1 trillion a year, $17 trillion since the Great Society was launched, not to mention private charity,” notes Pat Buchanan.
So, after trillions of dollars were spent over the course of nearly 50 years, the nation essentially has little to show for its Great Society War on Poverty – which was the crux of O’Reilly’s case.
More recent numbers from a Congressional Research Service analysis make an even starker point.
Since its inception, the Great Society has grown from a few main programs in 1965 to 83 programs today, at a cost of $1.028 trillion annually, “a price tag that makes welfare … the government’s largest expenditure,” The Daily Caller reports, quoting data from the CRS analysis.
“Roughly 100 million people – one-third of the U.S. population – receive aid from at least one means-tested welfare program each month. Average benefits come to around $9,000 per recipient,” the Heritage Foundation went on to point out, using the same CRS data.
If all that largess were converted to cash, “means-tested welfare spending is more than five times the amount needed to eliminate all poverty in the United States,” said Heritage.
This supposedly was not what Johnson had in mind – an overtly expensive web of government programs that have done nothing to lift the chronically poor out of their cycle of poverty.
And yet, in hindsight, that’s exactly what he had in mind.
How can we tell?
Because it’s a domestic policy only a progressive could love, which explains why President Obama has continued to embrace and perpetuate it, most recently by loosening work requirements and other standards to allow even more Americans to “qualify” for this War on Poverty assistance.
If you, the voter, were looking for a second-term Obama domestic policy agenda, look no further.
“No longer should we measure compassion by how much money the government spends but by how many people we help to rise out of poverty,” says Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, who requested the CRS report.
“Welfare assistance should be seen as temporary whenever possible and the goal must be to help more of our fellow citizens attain gainful employment and financial independence,” said Sessions.
Forty-eight years and trillions of dollars later, it would be about time.