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Merely keeping a patient alive is inferior to curing the disease. Likewise, merely allowing the impoverished to live under tolerable conditions is inferior to eliminating the underlying causes of poverty. Evidence for the former is used by Harvard Professor Christopher Jencks to proclaim the war on poverty a success. That is the upshot of his recent article in The New York Review of Books. But does the maintenance of a permanent dependent class constitute success? I believe that our goals should be loftier, and President Johnson’s original goals for the War on Poverty went much farther than Jencks suggests.

Ostensibly a review of other work by Martha Bailey and Sheldon Danziger, Professor Jencks devotes most of his essay to arguing that the official poverty rate published by the Census Bureau is distorted, and that a “corrected” measure has declined since the “war” was initiated by Johnson in the 1960s. The official rate has fluctuated in a range of 11-15% since the mid-1960s. Jencks corrects the 2013 rate of 14.5% for 1) the value of non-cash benefits received by certain program recipients (-3%); 2) the omission of refundable tax credits from the official incomes of employed individuals below the poverty line (-3%); and 3) a change in the price index used to adjust the official poverty thresholds over time to one that does not overstate changes in the cost of living (-3.7%). These three adjustments would reduce the poverty rate in 2013 to just 4.8%.

Taken at face value, that reduction is impressive, but the third adjustment is not directly attributable to antipoverty programs. It could also be due to economic growth or other factors. Jencks notes the following:

Both liberals and conservatives tend to resist the idea that poverty has fallen dramatically since 1964, although for different reasons. Conservatives’ resistance is easy to understand. They have argued since the 1960s that the federal government’s antipoverty programs were ineffective, counterproductive, or both. 

Liberals hear the claim that poverty has fallen quite differently, although they do not like it any better than conservatives do. Anyone, liberal or conservative, who wants the government to solve a problem soon discovers that it is easier to rally support for such an agenda by saying that the problem in question is getting worse than by saying that although the problem is diminishing, more still needs to be done.”

For my own part, I believe that many antipoverty programs succeed only as palliatives. They have not succeeded in breaking the cycle of poverty and dependence on the state. In other words, successful programs must foster self-sufficiency, which is a superior goal from a humanitarian and a Libertarian perspective. Jencks plans a follow-up on the “successes and failures specific anti-poverty programs”, but merely paying alms to the poor establishes a very low threshold for success.

In fairness to Jencks, anti-poverty programs serve a large number of individuals who are incapable of providing for themselves for a variety of reasons such as age, physical and mental disabilities. While it is beyond the scope of this post, some argue that private charities are more effective at providing for these individuals as well as the able poor. A greater role for charity could even be facilitated via public funding, but in any case, a larger role for private charity should always be on the menu of policy options.

A basic failing of many welfare programs is an incentive problem: able recipients perceive a penalty for work effort (additional hours or even kinds of employment) if rising earned income is associated with reduction or elimination of program benefits. This means that participants face a very high effective marginal tax rate on earned income.

This article from The CATO Institute contains a good overview of the federal welfare system, which consists of 126 separate programs. The article contains somewhat more detailed on the largest anti-poverty programs, such as Refundable Tax Credits (the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and Child Tax Credit (CTC)), Supplemental Security Income (SSI – for aged, blind and disabled), SNAP (food stamps), housing subsidies, child nutrition (WIC), Temporary Assistance For Needy Families (TANF) and unemployment insurance. Social Security is also included since it pays benefits to many low income seniors.

The CATO analysis shows that by one measure, refundable tax credits are by far the most cost efficient at lifting people out of poverty at a point in time, at least among the large programs, followed by SSI and using subsidies. In-kind programs such as SNAP and WIC tend to be less targeted and less effective by this measure. There is fairly widespread agreement that the tax credits have better incentives for work effort, but there are still high marginal tax rates in the phase-out range, a marriage penalty, and the credits are paid only once a year as tax refunds. Some contend that the phase-out of the EITC discourages labor supply even more than the credit increases labor supply at lower incomes. Still others believe that adding certain work requirements would make the EITC a more effective measure:

The [EITC] clearly does reduce poverty, but it raises work levels far less than some of the statistical studies of the past decade claim, and it appears to do so by encouraging working people to keep working, rather than driving the non-working poor toward jobs. If we wish the credit to promote work as well as raise incomes, we … must add other suasions to promote and enforce work, such as those found in the more successful work-incentive experiments…. These include mandating participation in work programs and setting some threshold of working hours that claimants have to achieve to get benefits.

The incentive effects of other programs are more negative than the tax credits. This paper found that the food stamp program reduces employment and hours worked. The TANF program, which was the successor to Aid To Families With Dependent Children (AFDC), also exposes recipients to high marginal tax rates. While CATO has been criticized for analyzing the combined impact on marginal tax rates of up to eight different programs, there is little question that the incentive problem is compounded for participants in multiple programs.

There are many different approaches that can be explored for eliminating poverty, supporting those who can’t work and ending dependency for those who can. Certainly, the work incentives of existing anti-poverty programs can be improved in a number of ways. More inventive approaches can be tested at the state level. However, programs such as guaranteed incomes should be eschewed, as they tend to aggravate the incentive problem and encourage dependency.

There are many other approaches to attacking poverty and its causes that do not strictly qualify as “welfare reform.” These include measures that would improve education and employment prospects, including apprenticeship and other training programs. School choice is a fundamental reform with enormous potential to improve the quality of education among poor children. Transitioning to market-based health care reform, including competition among health insurers, would reduce medical costs across the board. Eliminating costly regulation of business can encourage economic growth, which is basic to lifting the incomes of the working poor. Minimum wage legislation should be avoided as it simply eliminates opportunities for the least productive members of society and it is not well-targeted at the poor. Tax reform that encourages saving and investment, including corporate tax reform, will increase the economy’s long-term growth potential, as would a general reduction in the size of the public sector. An end to wasteful subsidies to “privileged” industries can minimize malinvestment and release resources to uses that pass a true market test, leading to a more general prosperity.