The Great Society at 50

by J.J. Summerell
Chair, Libertarian Party of North Carolina

Fifty years ago, at the campuses of Ohio University and the University of Michigan, President Lyndon Johnson ushered in the Great Society, a bold and ambitious undertaking of the federal government with two admirable and noble objectives: the elimination of poverty and the elimination of racial injustice.

Though we still have some degree of racial injustice among the peoples of the United States, Johnson’s programs, and subsequent federal programs, have been quite successful at the goal of eliminating racial injustice in our society. Kudos to President Johnson and the American people on this accomplishment.

The maintenance of a fair and effective system of justice is a legitimate and necessary function of government.

However, our goal of eliminating the scourge of poverty from our society has been an utter failure. In fact, many of our programs to relieve poverty seem to exacerbated the problem.

The failure of these programs is confirmed in President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech. In citing the growing dichotomy between rich and poor families, high income and low income families in the United States, he is confirming the failure of these programs.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this failure is that there is no lack of will or resources on behalf of the American people to solve the problem of poverty. We are a wealthy and generous society and I believe we can eradicate poverty among our population.

But, after fifty years of government programs, hundreds of thousands (millions?) of human careers dedicated to this cause, and trillions and trillions (and trillions and trillions) of dollars later, poverty in the United States seems worse than ever.

Could it be that solving the plague of poverty is not a wise function for government? Would our efforts to eradicate poverty be more efficient and more effective if administered on a private, voluntary basis?

Where in the New Testament does Christ say, “Don’t worry about the poor. Rome will take care of the poor?” Nowhere. Rome takes care of Rome, D.C. takes care of D.C. and Raleigh takes care of Raleigh.

Americans are the most caring and giving people in the world. For most of our history, voluntary mutual aid societies and spontaneous action by neighbors served to take care of the poor and people in need.

Before the War on Poverty was declared we rarely used the word welfare. Instead, charity was freely and cheerfully given by churches, service clubs, foundations, the United Way, and other agencies. The care was direct, personal, and tailored to individual needs. It was not a hand out, but a hand up, designed to lift those in need out of poverty or distress and into the workforce.

The War on Poverty, in contrast, recruited an army of bureaucrats whose live depends on getting as many people on welfare as possible and keeping them there. About two-thirds of government welfare money goes to pay the salaries and benefits of middle class social workers. That’s enough for a family of four to receive $50,000 a year.

In contrast, two-thirds of the money donated to private charities goes to help the poor.

If we have a sincere compassion for the less fortunate, and I think we do, then we need to take action – each one of us, individually and in groups – and not simply advise the government to throw more money at the problem. Government is simply not the most appropriate vehicle for the delivery of charity.

Charity should be distributed by charitable institutions. Government is not a charitable institution.

Note: This op ed was published in the March 16 Fayetteville Observer under the title  “Poverty worsens under federal ‘war’”

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