Why the "War on Poverty," Now Entering its Fifth Decade, Has Failed
“Keep doing what yer doing and you’ll keep getting what you got.” Thus spoke Robert Woodson, explaining why the War on Poverty, now entering its fifth decade, has failed—and miserably so.
As a front-row spectator, Bob should know. He has been an outspoken civil rights activist since the 1960s, directed the National Urban League’s Administration of Justice division back in the 1970s, and in 1981 founded the Center for Neighborhood Enterprises, focusing on finding practical solutions for fighting poverty. He’s since been awarded a MacArthur genius fellowship, the Bradley Foundation Prize, and the President’s Citizens medal. And yet, Al Sharpton is the one with the TV show.
Which leads me to think he knows much that our media elites don’t. In his interview on this week’s RealClear Radio Hour Bob confirmed that suspicion.
The American public is “tired of the gladiatorial combat that masquerades as political discourse” and is “desperate for solutions that transcend the ideological divide,” he said. “The Civil Rights movement has abandoned the high ground on which it was founded. It has morphed into a race grievance industry. It has been hijacked by the Democratic Party. It has sold its soul to the highest bidder.”
Yet, far from being bitter, Bob is ever more committed to his work at the Center for Neighborhood Enterprises, where his focus is on studying, identifying, and amplifying success, not justifying, subsidizing, and profiting from failure. “The only thing you can learn from studying failure is how to create more of it.”
He argues that most government spending on poverty alleviation is misdirected. “Seventy percent of the money spent on poor people goes not to poor people; it goes to those that serve poor people. And so they ask not which problems are solvable but which problems are fundable. We’ve spent $15 trillion to aid the poor with the bulk of it going to middle class providers. We have created a commodity out of poor people and wonder why poverty expands as funding increases.”
Bob is concerned about the class divide this has created among his fellow African Americans. “Two out of 10 whites with a college education works for government. Six out of 10 blacks with a college education works for government. This makes a lot of middle class blacks part of what I call the Poverty Pentagon. The perverse incentives lead to the consequence that many middle class blacks prosper at the expense of their low income counterparts.”
Those perverse incentives promote the perpetuation and growth of the complex of social workers and welfare “rights” activists who measure their success by how many new “clients” they get to sign up for state benefits. And that is precisely why Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, which turns 50 this summer, has been such a failure.
“Billions of dollars in government money has been converted into services for the poor, funding schools of social work, psychologists, drug counselors—all professional providers. They crafted remedies for the poor that were parachuted into low income communities. If the poor did not respond by improving their conditions, rather than challenging the nature of the intervention, they demanded more money. So the more they undermined the people they were supposed to serve, the more they got rewarded with expanded budgets. We built a system where the more you fail, the more you get paid.”
So how do we break this vicious cycle? “I believe the answer is to seek solutions among what I call the social entrepreneurs that are indigenous to low income communities. We believe that the principles that work in our market economy should also work in our social economy.” And so Bob’s program seeks out families that have persevered and prospered despite the odds against them, to learn from their success and teach their lessons to others.
He also places a high premium on cultivating the personal dignity that can only come through work, describing a program in which impoverished mothers earn volunteer credits they then use to purchase Christmas gifts for their own children, avoiding having the mothers shamed by watching social workers distribute gifts to their kids.
All of this has political implications, particularly as the White House amps up its income inequality hysteria campaign. “I am encouraging the Republican Party to become competitive ,” says Bob. “That’s why I’m taking Paul Ryan, once a month, to visit low income leaders that have triumphed over poverty and despair so that perhaps he can instruct others of his party in ways that they can become competitive. It is really hostile to the interests of America for black America to be a sole subsidiary of one political party.” But, I asked Bob directly, “Do you believe there’s an irredeemable taint of racism in the hearts of many conservative Republicans?” “Absolutely not,” he replied. “I do not believe that.”
About the Author: In the 35 years since Bill Frezza graduated from MIT with degrees in electrical engineering and biology he has been a scientist, an engineer, a product manager, a salesman, a consultant, an entrepreneur, an author, a technology evangelist, and a venture capitalist. His early career on high-tech’s bleeding edge included the development of first generation electronic newspapers, home banking, home shopping, cable modems, multi-user videogames, wireless LANs, and wireless email, all of which became a success – for someone else a decade later. His 15 years as a venture capital investor working with early stage telecom, semiconductor, and biotech startups taught him humbleness, risk aversion, and the ability to identify ten fatal flaws out of five in any startup business plan. Frezza is a frequent guest on CNBC, FOX, and CBN News where he is challenged to reduce complex economic and policy issues into thirty second sound bites. More writing by Frezza can be found at BillFrezza.com. This article originally appeared in Forbes and appears here with permission from the author.