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BreakPoint This Week: The War on Poverty at Fifty

On the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty, John Stonestreet interviews Dr. Jay Richards on the real causes of poverty, and why government solutions aren't enough.

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This year we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a “War on Poverty.” So who won that war anyway? During this week’s broadcast, John Stonestreet welcomes special guest, Dr. Jay Richards, Distinguished Fellow at the Institute on Faith, Work and Economics, to take stock of where we are, and what the roots of real poverty are.

If there’s one thing social legislation has taught us, it’s that good intentions don’t necessarily translate to good results. And while a new generation of Christian young people are more concerned with poverty than ever before, defining poverty, understanding its true causes and adopting realistic solutions is crucial to alleviating this scourge. In other words, Christians must not only care about the poor. We must do so intelligently.

Dr. Jay Richards, author of the new book, “Money, Greed and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and not the Problem,” says our mandate is clear.

“Open up the Bible,” he says, “read it from cover to cover. It’s clear that God cares about the poor, and He expects us to care about the poor.”

Dr. Jay Richards
But in order to truly make a difference, we’ve got to understand the real problem.

“The reason certain ministries combatting poverty are successful,” he explains, “is that they’re not treating poverty as merely an economic problem. They understand that poverty has complicated causes in almost every case. It involved cultural, legal, moral and spiritual elements.”

The failure to recognize this, he believes, is why fifty years after the start of LBJ’s “war,” little has changed. In fact, from 1930 to 1964, the poverty rate in the United States progressively decreased—even taking into account the Great Depression. But upon the inception of programs designed to “end poverty as we know it” in the mid-1960s, the rate leveled off, and has stayed there ever since. That's partly because people are sinking into poverty and staying there, or worse, being born into it.

“…that suggests that it clearly didn’t work—whatever we thought was going to happen,” concludes Dr. Richards. “…if we literally wanted to end poverty, it’s clear that we didn’t succeed.” Apparently, the “War on Poverty” didn't even help.

So what went wrong? Dr. Richards argues that means-tested welfare, which attempts to target poverty on an individual rather than societal basis, tends to entrench, not alleviate the problem.

“Essentially in many cases,” he says, “we set up well-meaning programs that encouraged the things that ought to be discouraged. The most glaring example of this is of course, the state of marriage. In the mid-1960s, a small percentage of the population was having children out-of-wedlock. Now in the city among black Americans, it’s over seventy percent of children born out of wedlock. What caused that? Well, certainly the Sexual Revolution, but also the structure of the incentives of the [War on Poverty].”

Welfare programs designed to help the poor frequently punish the establishment of stable families by paying unwed mothers greater sums for each additional child, distributing benefits such as food stamps with little oversight, and most of all accepting entrants into programs without offering opportunities to move beyond welfare.

“We actually create a cyclical version of poverty from generation to generation,” says Richards. “We tried to do something that helped people and we actually set up a situation that kept people in poverty.”

Marriage and the family, says Dr. Richards, have sustained devastating blows under War on Poverty programs. And the failure to recognize that poverty goes much deeper finances, he believes, has contributed to the failure of President Johnson’s half-century old war.

Millions in this country continue to slog through generational poverty, and though it might not compare to the abject state of populations in developing countries, poverty in the United States is particularly vexing, given the unprecedented relative wealth of our society. So if traditional welfare programs don’t work, what can we do? Well, for starters, Dr. Richards thinks we can restructure existing laws to encourage marriage and family, as well as reopen the door to private charities which the War on Poverty effectively slammed shut:

“What we have to do is implement a series of reforms so that people that truly need these things can continue to receive them but in a way that incentivizes them to positive economic behavior, and it gives the private sector time to build up and bear that weight. I as much as anyone believe we need to have a social safety net, but that doesn’t mean that the federal government ought to be in charge of that…The long-term trajectory needs to go in that direction.”

But more importantly, a revolution is needed in the way the Church views its role. For too long, believes Richards, not only has the government crowded out religious charity, but Christians have abandoned our God-given posts as ministers of mercy and redemption—not only in a spiritual and other-worldly sense, but in this world, in our own communities. He calls the Church to declare its own war on poverty, not by simply throwing money at the problem, but by reaching out to the impoverished right in our neighborhoods.

Only this kind of deliberate action will make a lasting difference, and re-establish the Church’s tarnished credibility to criticize bad government policies, and offer solutions that get to the root of the problem.

To explore Dr. Richards’ analysis of the last fifty years as well as his proposed solutions, be sure to listen to this week’s full interview. Then pick up a copy of this eye-opening book at the Colson Center Online Store.


"BreakPoint This Week" is hosted by John Stonestreet, co-host of the BreakPoint daily radio commentary as well as The Point.


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Explore this week's broadcast:


Money, Greed and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem
Dr. Jay Richards | The Colson Center Online Store

Institute for Faith, Work and Economics

Acton Poverty Cure


War on Poverty
I real like the things that Dr. Richards is saying. One question I wish I could ask him is whether the disintegration of the family (and thus poverty) can be traced back even farther to the U.S. slave days, when we separated father's from their families, which made it necessary for the women to have to fend for themselves and their children without a man around. When we then set up the welfare programs, this past mentality was simply reinforced in that men couldn't live with the women they were having babies with, otherwise they would get no help. Has anyone ever looked at the role of this early "sin" of slavery had on poverty? How as a country could we do more to address reconciling men to their families? That's all!

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