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LBJ's War On Poverty Is The Greatest Policy Failure Of Modern America

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Photo: kumanday via Flickr

President Lyndon Johnson and the “best and the brightest” who staffed his administration led this country into three quagmires. By far the most famous, but perhaps not the most expensive and dangerous resulted from LBJ’s escalation of the Vietnam War. 

More than 50,000 Americans and many more Vietnamese died as a result of that policy; our country was bitterly divided in ways that still weaken us today, and the economic cost of the war was immense. 

It contributed to the wave of inflation that shook the country in the 1970s and in addition to the interest on the debt from this ill-starred venture we are still paying (as we certainly should) pensions and medical costs for the vets and their spouses.

The Second Great Johnson Quagmire now destroying the nation is the Medicare/Medicaid complex.  These entitlement programs are the biggest single financial problem we face.  They dwarf all the Bush-Obama wars; they make TARP look like small change.  They not only cost money we don’t have — and are scheduled to cost inexorably more until they literally ruin the nation — they have distorted our entire health system into the world’s most bloated and expensive monstrosity.  Thanks to these programs, we have a health system that marries the greed of the private sector to the ineptitude of government, and unless we can somehow tame these beasts America and everything it stands for could be lost. (Note, please, that by comparison Social Security can be relatively easily reformed to be solvent for the next 75 years.  The New Deal, whatever its shortcomings, was almost infinitely more realistic and sustainable than the Great Society.)

But that is a subject for another day.  The third Johnson Quagmire is the War on Poverty, and specifically the attempt to treat inner city poverty primarily as a racial problem.  After the Medicare/Medicaid catastrophe the single greatest policy failure of modern America is urban policy.  Since the Great Society era of Lyndon Johnson, the country has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into poor urban neighborhoods.  The violence and crime generated in these neighborhoods costs hundreds of billions more.  And after all this time, all this money and all this energy, the inner city populations are worse off than before.  There is more drug addiction and more social and family breakdown among this population than when the Great Society was launched.  Incarceration rates have risen to levels that shock the world (though they make for safer streets); the inner city abortion rate has reached levels that must surely appall even the most resolute pro-choicers not on the Planned Parenthood payroll.  40 per cent of all pregnancies in New York end in abortion, with higher rates among Blacks; nationally, the rate among Blacks is three times the rate among white women.  Put it all together and you have a holocaust of youth and hope on a scale hard to match.

This is not a lot to show for almost 50 years of fighting poverty — not a lot of bang for the buck.

We need to do better.  The state of the American inner city is an unacceptable human tragedy, and the costs in money spent and prosperity forfeited create an unsustainable drag on the national economy at a time when we need all the help we can get.

There is more.  Those neighborhoods — and the prisons in which so many young urban men spend large chunks of their lives — threaten the peace and security of the country as a whole.  Extremist cults, some domestically based and others relying on foreign money and enthusiasm, fish in these troubled waters for souls, and sometimes they catch a few.  This could turn ugly.  An old friend who has spent much of his life fighting violence and extremism in the inner city puts the danger like this: think about “The Wire” and think about all the talent, ingenuity and training that goes into the drug gangs.  Think about their ability to operate in defiance of the police, think about their connections with international crime and the amount of money they can raise.

Now think about what life would be like in this country if the leaders of those groups embraced violent religious extremism and sought, as many have done overseas, to finance a terror campaign through drug money.

This is, I believe, a serious threat down the road; there are already a few early warning signs and while we should not be stampeded into panic about them, the situation is one to watch with concern.  Where there is no real hope, people clutch at straws — and on present trends conditions in the inner cities are likely to get significantly worse.  Bad and dysfunctional as the remaining Great Society programs are, we are entering an era of government budget cutting.  Given the power that unions, middle class and elite lobbies have, inner city residents stand to take a disproportionate share of any cuts.  If it’s a choice between helping poor children in the inner city or paying inflated pensions to retired union workers, where will the politicians come down?

The Great Society legacy is not all bad.  The voting rights legislation and the affirmative action programs introduced at that time helped a solid African-American middle class to expand.  Increasingly, the country now has second and third generations of African-American families who have college educations and who are represented at all levels of business, the professions, politics and the arts.

Not that the Great Society deserves as much credit as its backers like to claim.  Most of African-American progress since 1965 is due to the dogged hard work of people determined to change their own lives.  Government action did play a role, but clearly racial attitudes in the United States have dramatically changed, perhaps especially so among conservatives.  When conservative Republicans whose parents were Dixiecrat segregationists cheering on Lester Maddox now swoon at the rhetoric of Herman Cain, give standing ovations to Condoleezza Rice, write angry letters to editors when liberal journalists attack Clarence Thomas and elect an African American Republican to the House of Representatives from Charleston, SC, we must recognise that something has changed.

In any case, the Johnson-era approach to urban poverty was largely predicated on the idea that our urban problems were a race and justice problem.  Discrimination in housing, jobs and education had created the “ghetto”; ending those practices, compensating for them through affirmative action and providing infusions of cash to jump start urban investment and “renew” down at heels urban neighborhoods would win the war on urban poverty.

To the extent these ideas and the policies they inspired had merit, things got better.  The middle class grew and many African Americans moved out of segregated neighborhoods and public housing projects into the suburbs.  But this wasn’t the whole story, and even as Great Society era programs worked for some, conditions in the inner cities worsened for many who remained.

The result is the urban quagmire in which we now find ourselves.  We are spending massive amounts of money and conditions are getting worse.  Liberals recognise this as a problem in Afghanistan; they are more reluctant to see it in St. Louis — but it is true.  What we are doing now isn’t working and while some of the reforms being tried (especially in education and perhaps also new ways of handling drug issues) offer promise, there is no light at the end of the urban tunnel.

The urban quagmire into which the Johnson administration (blue thought at its zenith) led the United States reflects a massive intellectual failure.  We still have racial problems in this country, but the urban problem at its core about much more than race.  To think clearly about the inner cities, we are going to have learn to think less racially — to for example learn to think about our inner city problem as if most of the urban poor were white.

Inner Cities in Context

The first step is to put the African-American presence in the cities in historical context.  The Great Migration of African-Americans from southern farms to northern cities was one of many such movements in the modern era.  For hundreds of years now, changes in agriculture have been sending people from the countryside into the city.  The rising productivity of agricultural workers, the growing concentration of land ownership in the hands of well-capitalised large proprietors and the mechanization of farm work meant that peasants have been leaving the field for the city all over the world.

The African American urban migration was one of these mass movements of population.  It was not unlike waves of migration to the US from much of Europe; farmers and farm workers were either pushed off the land or drawn to the possibilities of urban life and many of them came to America’s burgeoning cities in search of better lives.  As cotton culture was mechanised and sharecropping gave way to large estates directly worked by the owner, millions of African-Americans streamed to northern cities between 1910 and the 1960s  just as Italians, Greeks, Russians, Poles and Jews had done between the Civil War and the immigration restrictions of the 1920s.

We are, incidentally, seeing many more Great Migrations today: in North America we have rural Mexicans and Central Americans are streaming into cities in Mexico and across the US.  The Turkish migration into Germany followed this pattern; much of the North African migration to western Europe and the internal Chinese migration from country to city is of this kind as well.  Rural migrants are swelling the population of African cities from Capetown to Cairo; they are filling the cities of South and Central Asia.  Globally we are in the middle of a Great Migration that sometime in this century will put a majority of the world’s population into cities for the first time ever.

Historically, cities were tough places to move to.  Back in the eighteenth century and in most of the nineteenth, mortality rates were often higher and in many cases much higher in cities than in rural areas.  Sanitation was primitive; food transport was slow and uncertain and refrigeration did not exist.  Social safety nets were porous and weak.  The cities were regularly scourged by disease and fire.  Urban populations tended to shrink in those years if not continually renewed by fresh migrants from the countryside.

Economically and culturally it wasn’t easy, either.  Back in the country, young people (the bulk of the migrants then and now) were integrated into strong social patterns.  They were mostly honest and hardworking.  There were relatively few opportunities for the sons and daughters of poor peasants and laborers to be anything else.

When they got to the city, there were no strong extended family networks to provide a social safety net in bad times — or to enforce social discipline and healthy habits in good ones.  Cities, classically, have more temptations than the country does — that is one reason adventurous young people in particular like to move to them.  With no social safety net, no public health and no support system, many migrants became statistics on the urban mortality rolls.  Drinking badly made gin, eating poorly preserved and often contaminated food, and living in unsanitary neighborhoods was not a recipe for longevity. Throw in venereal disease in an era that knew very little about prevention or treatment, and it is easy to understand why cities needed constant replenishment from the countryside.

The old urban migration was a kind of Darwinian test.  Migrants had to maintain their social discipline and sharply limit their indulgences in the dangerous but alluring diversions of urban life.  Failing to do that meant an early and often very unpleasant death.

The growing European cities of the eighteenth and early to mid-nineteenth century had what Marx called a lumpenproletariat of deracinated residents who had lost their footing in the country but been unable to establish themselves on steady terms in the city.  They were the petty thieves, prostitutes and hustlers of the day — the pages of Dickens are full of them.  Their numbers tended to grow as the pace of urbanization sped up, but epidemics and hunger continued to take their toll.

Beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing through to the present day, urban demography changed.  Mortality rates in cities dropped as people grew to understand the importance of clean water, learned how to fight or prevent infectious disease and the quality of the food supply dramatically improved.  Add the provision of a social safety net and the conditions existed for what we have seen: the development of a cycle of urban poverty spanning many generations.

When the Great Migration of rural African-Americans came north, beginning around World War One, they were more like the Mexican immigrants of today than like a Marxist lumpenproletariat.  By and large they were hard working and clean living people who were willing and able to work at sometimes backbreaking jobs to provide for their families.  Despite the corrosive effect that slavery had on family ties and despite the inevitable strains that great poverty places on family life, African American family ties were much stronger then than they are in today’s inner city.

Many African Americans established themselves in urban middle class communities; Harlem and Queens (this most glamorous and cosmopolitan of New York boroughs included Jackie Robinson, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Malcolm X among its residents) contained vibrant, exciting and safe neighborhoods.  Schools often worked much better than many do now; the social infrastructure of African-American neighborhoods was comparable and in some cases stronger than in other neighborhoods of recent urban immigrants from around the world.

Over time, two trends appear in such neighborhoods.  Some residents (luckier or more talented) establish secure lives in the urban economy.  Over time they tend to move away from the old neighborhoods to less crowded parts of the city and to the suburbs.  Those who do not for whatever reason make this transition successfully begin to lose the inherited culture and discipline of the country.  In the old days a high mortality (and high infant mortality) rate would limit this population.  These days, though abortion, violence, drug addiction and crime take a toll, the modern scourges are less effective than the older ones and many more people survive physically in the city while failing to find secure livelihoods there.  As one dysfunctional generation gives rise to another, inherited social structures weaken further, and we see what we see.

African Americans formed the first nucleus of what is likely to be an ongoing underclass not so much because of their skin colour (though with many craft unions and employers holding to white only hiring practices discrimination had an effect) as because of their timing.  African Americans were the last wave of migrants to hit the American industrial belt; while the 1920s immigration laws cut the flow of European immigrants to a trickle, the African American influx continued into the years when American factory employment stagnated and then began its (so far) inexorable decline. Black America showed up for the party just as the bar was closing down.

Many African Americans transitioned to the modern economy.  Even as factories stopped taking on new workers and laying off old ones, African Americans went to college in record numbers.  Like second and third generation European migrants to city life before them, they found middle class jobs on police forces, in schools, in fire departments, sanitation departments and in the civil service.  Some pursued military careers and others went into business, finance, politics and law.

A critical mass, however, did not make the adjustment in time.  Early generations of American immigrants headed quickly from the cities onto family farms up through the Civil War; from the Civil War through the Vietnam era the factories provided a bridge into the middle class.  For the last 40 years that avenue has been closed; new waves of immigrants have been forced to find new paths into the middle class.  For some, it is proving difficult, and we have already seen the signs of social and family breakdown and a growing gang culture among some newer immigrant groups.

Once a community has reached the levels of dysfunction and defeat that characterises the third, fourth and fifth generations of the modern American underclass, conventional social programs no longer work particularly well.  Affirmative action does not help a 30 year old illiterate with a drug habit get a job.  The most dedicated teachers in the best schools cannot compensate for the lack of basic parenting at home.  A community of young men who have never known a father’s care or even seen a father caring for a family cannot be prepared for adult life by anything the government can do.

There are no magic solutions to problems this deeply rooted, but we are going to dispel the shadow of LBJ from our urban policy and find new approaches to urban problems that break with the core assumptions of the catastrophically wrongheaded ‘best and the brightest’ of the 1960s.  Thinking less racially about urban problems is part of the answer; in future posts I will make more suggestions.  This is a complicated subject and clear answers are not easy to find; I will be looking to responses from readers to help me figure things out.

This post originally appeared at The American Interest.

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