Inequality and the poor 50 years after LBJ launches the war on poverty

A half century ago, LBJ declared war on poverty. He said it wouldn’t be a short or easy struggle. About that, he was right. Today’s debates on the minimum wage and inequality remind us of the challenges. It’s necessary to get past the rhetoric, though, to get some insight into the proper role of public policy.

Scott Winship writes in the New York Times that the nation has been more successful in reducing poverty than many of us believe. He also properly frames the issue.

We need a war on immobility — a bipartisan crusade to identify and address the barriers that leave 70 percent of poor children below the middle class as adults. We should be prepared to spend more money in this war to find effective models that promote mobility, but we should also commit to shuttering ineffective programs and to reforming the senior entitlements that will crowd out spending on the poor.

And we will have to recognize the limits of what money can buy; expanding opportunity for poor kids will require that we “incentivize” the right behaviors, attitudes and values, through economic carrots and sticks. Culture, not just economics, must be a front in the war on immobility.

In the Atlantic, AEI visiting scholar Brad Wilcox makes the case that “if you really care about ending poverty, stop talking about inequality.” He lays out the statistics and concludes:

As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty this week, it’s worth considering that our attention to income inequality, although well-meaning, is distracting us from the most important pieces in the poverty puzzle. Growth, marriages, and local governments are three issues deserving more attention in our efforts to renew the American Dream for the nation’s poorest citizens.

See also James Pethokoukis’s comments on the Wilcox piece.

Finally, I’d point to my column from mid-December, in which I express concern about the effects of a dramatic increase in the minimum wage.

The first step out of poverty entails landing a good job, a starter job with starter pay. A $15 minimum wage will put that job out of reach for the least educated and experienced workers.

Increasing economic opportunity and mobility is the right battle. It must be fought with the right policies.

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