by Rod D. Martin
January 22, 2004

“The War on Poverty is over — and the poor lost.”

So said Jack Kemp well over a decade ago. Kemp was half-right. Today, the poor are with us still — but so is LBJ’s War, now entering its 40th year.

Hailed as a cure-all, this liberal-led War has bled America dry — materially and morally.

Through Medicare and Medicaid, it replaced free markets and personal choice with the shackles of a one-size-fits-all bureaucracy, creating a costly, unaccountable, hydra-headed monstrosity that slouches towards bankruptcy and entraps those it was meant to help.

Through tampering with Social Security, Great Society architects created sham budget surpluses, postponing the day of reckoning for a system that operates like a Ponzi scheme.

Through exponential expansion of the welfare system, it ignored the prescience of liberal icon FDR, who once deemed permanent welfare “a narcotic [and] destroyer of the human spirit.” This abominable system not only weakened personal initiative and responsibility; it tore through civil society like a tornado. As Bill Bennett put it, “Families, churches, and community groups [were] forced to surrender….to bureaucratic experts. Fathers were replaced by welfare checks and private charities…by government spending. Religious groups were dismissed as amateurs, and whole communities demolished in slum clearance.”

Note the irony: in the name of fighting poverty, welfare wrecked the values and institutions that made victory possible. Welfare was anti-work, anti-life, anti-choice, and anti-family, and few seemed to care.

The perversity extended far beyond the most obvious victims: Uncle Sam taxed productive people to pay others not to work, save, invest, or get married, and to have babies they weren’t prepared to raise. Washington punished millions of people for getting a life, while rewarding millions more for getting life wrong. To add insult to injury, Americans were forced to pay more and more into Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, for the “privilege” of getting less and less in the future.

The War triggered the steepest cultural and moral decline in our history. As unwed pregnancies skyrocketed, so did out-of-wedlock births and abortions. Partially in response to this, the Supreme Court issued its infamous Roe v. Wade ruling thirty-one years ago today, and since then, one out of every three of our children — a number equivalent to twice the population of countries like Iraq or Australia — has been killed. Crime and drug use reached epidemic proportions; divorce increased and marriage fell out of favor; and inflation exploded, mocking the thrifty and vindicating the profligate.

Why did this War fail so miserably? Quite simply, it failed to understand people.

It forgot that people are unique, with highly individual circumstances no cookie-cutter program can address. It forgot that human dignity — exemplified by the Christian doctrine that every person is created in the image of God — can be discarded only at great cost, that a man robbed of it becomes the animal the secularists say he is. It forgot that humanity is generally self-interested and responds to material incentives: if a woman gets cash for each child born out of wedlock, she will bear more of them, just as a breadwinner facing a higher tax rate for working overtime will cut back his hours.

Perhaps most significantly of all, the warriors of false compassion forgot that eliminating all risk from people’s lives requires eliminating responsibility as well. Not only that, it destroys any hope of responsibly using risk to get ahead, to create some measure of wealth, or to set a proper example for one’s children.

Compassion demands we learn the lesson; and indeed, in 1996 when a Republican Congress finally reformed welfare, every form of social pathology began to fall, and 3.5 million fewer people live in poverty today.

Yet we must do much, much more.

We must give Americans back their Social Security savings. We must not tolerate the impoverishment of the elderly when compound interest could make them rich. Even the most conservative numbers show that, if every American could invest his Social Security as he does his IRA, most would retire on almost twice their salary, after inflation. As Britain, Australia and even Chile have shown, we can make this a reality for every family.

We must also reform health care. Immediately, we should give every American the same right leftist Democrats have reserved for big corporations since the New Deal: the right to spend or save every health care dollar tax free. We’ll accomplish this through Health Savings Accounts, similar to your IRA. In so doing, we will radically cut insurance costs both for workers and employers, introduce real price competition into medicine, provide complete insurance portability, and create a vast new pool of investment capital and inheritable wealth for millions of poor and middle class families.

These reforms will change every aspect of American life for the better. We can take great pride in our President’s courage in standing for them in his State of the Union. And in enacting them, we can show real compassion toward our fellowman, and end the long leftist night.