In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed, “It is possible to conquer poverty.” And so began the War on Poverty, a massive program aimed to eradicate the need to barely scrape by, using more than a third of one’s income for basic food. Programs like the Food Stamp Act, Job Corps, and most notably the Social Security Act revved up a political storm. This year marks the War on Poverty’s 50th anniversary.

First, let’s acknowledge the War on Poverty’s successes. It’s greatest achievement was all but ending poverty among the elderly; seniors had a 35% poverty rate in 1960, and brought that figure down to 9% in 2011. And as for the percentage of Americans living in “deep poverty,” or those living 50% or more below the poverty line, that number has almost been cut in half. In 1966, more than four-in-10 black people (41.8%) were impoverished. Today, that number has fallen to 27.2%. There are significant parts of the United States who have grossly benefited from the War on Poverty,and continue to to this day.

Conservatives and libertarians: there are some factual problems with combating poverty by cutting welfare. The problem is that many of these redistribution programs worked in improving the lives of the poor. It is cruel to simply end poverty-reduction programs without looking at other systemic problems facing the poor. These programs should be focused on first, before considering eliminating War on Poverty programs.

Corporate Welfare

Ending corporate welfare would do more to free markets than ending individual welfare. Remember, the government spends almost twice as much on corporate benefits ($92 billion) than on the analogous social programs ($59 billion). This is an obvious first cut to help end the welfare state.

And it’s more humane. Corporations don’t need to put food on the table. They aren’t worried about feeding their children or paying the rent month-to-month. To be sure, they are run by individuals, but a vast majority of corporate welfare is targeted at businesses that are doing just fine on their own.

Ending corporate welfare can help the poor in two ways. First, these mega-corporations would have a smaller market share, allowing entrepreneurs to innovate and enter traditionally difficult-to-access markets. This helps spread wealth to those greatest in need. Secondly, it can help increase employment, as more competition in the marketplace will require more workers. More employment means less people on welfare, simple as that.

Farm Subsidies

Farm subsidies, a specific kind of corporate welfare, are particularly damaging to the poor because it artificially raises food prices. For example, sugar prices in the United States are sometimes twice as high as they are in the rest of the world (and guess what makes up a substantive part of a poor person’s diet). The policy cost U.S. citizens $3 billion in 2012 alone. Ironically, one reason why food stamps continue to exist is because they attempt to curb the price inflation of groceries that are a direct result of farm subsidies.

Agricultural subsidies are particularly bad for the rural poor who want to farm their land competitively; as with corporate subsidies, it helps big companies instead of fostering market competition.

This program directly affects whether or not the poor can put food on the table. It is cruel and serves only the elites, who are far from needing government assistance.

The War on Drugs

Ending the War on Drugs is the most obvious solution to ending poverty today. This racist, ineffective policy costs almost as much as the War on Poverty at $40 billion each year. Again, if we want to cut funding while helping the poor, ending the War on Drugs should be a first, not second, step.

The War on Drugs particularly hurts non-white poor. Hispanic people, whose poverty levels accounted for all poverty growth in the 1990s, now make up one-in-three incarcerated persons in the United States and are the fastest growing group being imprisoned, and are now incarcerated at the same level as blacks. There is a sad outgrowth of being incarcerated for non-violent drug crimes: recidivism, single-motherhood particularly in communities of color, and introduction to violent crime. All of these problems contribute to sustained poverty in these disproportionately effected communities in the United States.

Preventing School Choice

It is a sad reality that public schools are largely funded by the people surrounding them, resulting in higher-quality schools for richer neighborhoods. It’s a sad reality that a child’s birth immediately assigns them to a government-owned school from which a parents cannot deviate, especially if they have to work (can’t home school) or can’t afford private school (the nation’s poor). High-income families already have school choice because of the money they make. Low-income families do not currently have that luxury.

While vouchers are not a perfect free-market solution, it is a good compromise. Vouchers introduce the idea of choice into the education market and give poor children the opportunity to get the same education as their richer peers. Vouchers would also save the average American taxpayer a whole lot of money, but of course would vary with the citizen’s state of residency.

Education matters when trying to escape poverty. School choice would enable the poor to have more class mobility, higher graduation rates, and higher college participation rates. It is an easy, go-to fix for eliminating poverty.

Entitlements aren’t good for the economy—most people can agree on that—but there are far more humane ways to end cyclical poverty than immediately, heartlessly, gutting the existing safety net. Instead of focusing on the mythological “welfare queen” and cutting programs that directly aid poor Americans’ day-to-day living, we should first focus on ending corporate welfare, ending farm subsidies, ending the War on Drugs, and ending the public school monopoly. Then—and only then—should we turn our attention to the safety net that would no longer be protecting poor Americans from the damaging effects of these programs.

  • Adam

    Rachel, did you bother reading the Cato report you cited?

    Can you explain to us how cutting the programs in that report will “improve access to hard-to-reach markets” or “help the poor”?

    How will cutting the 4.4 billion in FHA mortgage subsidies help the poor?
    How will cutting the 128 million in rural electrification subsidies help the poor?

    How will cutting the 1.2 billion in Amtrak subsidies help entrepreneurs?
    How will cutting the 4.6 billion in Foreign Military support help entrepreneurs?
    How will cutting the 11.8 billion in Military R&D help entrepreneurs?

    Corporate Subsidies of the type that Cato was talking about isn’t what prevents access to markets, especially for the poor. Excessive regulatory burden and access to capital markets are the problems that entrepreneurs face, not corporate subsidies.

  • Robert Kenneth Kirchoff

    No problem with the strategy per se, but one small quibble with the facts:

    Poverty among the elderly has decreased, but how much of that is attributable to a rise in incomes, a decrease in labor-intensive jobs that gives elderly people a stronger income in later years, and also to Social Security and Medicare? Because you list government outlays for “welfare” at a mere $59bn dollars. That doesn’t even scratch the surface of the actual cost of the programs that have contributed to these stats.

  • starchild

    Rachel Burger’s overall theses that things like corporate welfare and the “war on drugs” do more than welfare programs to hurt the poor, and should be eliminated prior to social welfare spending cuts, is spot on.

    Not so for the claim that the “war on poverty” has helped the poor. The poverty rate in the U.S. was declining faster *before* these programs got started, and they actually *slowed* the reduction in poverty (see attached graph).