Few areas of government are as ripe for reform as our bloated, inefficient, and ineffective welfare system. The United States has spent more than $23 trillion fighting poverty, roughly $1 trillion last year alone. Yet all this spending has bought us surprisingly little. Although far from conclusive, the evidence suggests that our welfare system has marginally reduced the number of people living in poverty, while helping to reduce its deprivations for millions of others. This shouldn’t be a big surprise. No matter how dim a view one takes of governmental competence in general, it would be virtually impossible for the government to spend $23 trillion on welfare without helping at least some poor people.
But by the broader and more important benchmark — enabling people to rise above poverty, to become self‐sufficient and able to care for their families, to achieve all that they can achieve — welfare has clearly failed.
The War on Poverty was launched, in the words of President Johnson, not only to “relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” Yes, Johnson sought to meet the “basic needs” of those in poverty, but also to “replace despair with opportunity.” But walk through poor communities today, from Baltimore’s “Sandtown” to Owsley, Ky., and it becomes increasingly difficult to pretend that people are flourishing in any meaningful sense.
Of course, many of the answers to poverty — criminal‐justice reform, school choice, occupational‐licensing reform, the elimination of other barriers that prevent the poor from participating in a growing economy, and efforts to fight systemic racism and sexism — lie outside the welfare system. And, of course, simply increasing economic growth will do more to relieve poverty than any government program ever could. But there should be no doubt that we can also do better when it comes to welfare.