The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

America's Longest War: On Poverty

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


In his 1964 State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson declared an “all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States.”  President Johnson said, “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.”

The War on Poverty, more costly than all wars since the American Revolution combined, has failed to substantially reduce, much less eliminate, poverty in the United States.  It has cost taxpayers $22 trillion since the first anti-poverty programs were put into place in 1965, but it has yielded minimal relief or economic advancement for its recipients.  Despite the massive investment, the rate of poverty has fallen only four points since 1964, 19 percent in 1964 to 15 percent in 2012.  Presently, the current welfare system provides support to families and individuals, but it fails to provide tools for families and individuals to lift themselves out of poverty.

Meaningful reform is needed to win America’s most expensive war.  Despite several attempts, before and after President Johnson’s declaration, none of these programs have been able to create paths for families and individuals to get out of poverty.  At best, the programs helped recipients keep their heads above water, but they haven’t provided swim lessons.  In the welfare system, if individuals find part-time work or receive a raise, they can have their financial support or subsidized housing, or both, cut off.  The current system encourages people to not work (or even marry) because they’re on their own at the first sight of advancement.  Clearly, as spending on welfare programs is expected to reach $1 trillion this year, changes must be made.

On May 26, 2016, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) introduced H.R. 5360, the Welfare Reform and Upward Mobility Act, with Reps. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.), Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), and Steve Chabot (R-Ohio).  Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), alongside Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), James Inhofe (R-Okla.), and David Vitter (R-La.), introduced a companion bill (S. 3047) in the Senate.  This legislation, unlike previous reform efforts, gives families and individuals tools and incentives to climb out of poverty.

Based on successful reforms enacted in Maine, Jordan’s legislation aims to change the incentives in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP), Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), and housing programs.  To reform SNAP, which is notoriously susceptible to fraud, the legislation mirrors Maine’s successful state-run work activation programs, including vocational training, job training, community service, and job search assistance.  According to an op-ed by Sen. Lee, Rep. Jordan, and Rep. Meadows, the fastest growing demographic of welfare recipients are able-bodied working adults from the ages of 18 to 49 with no children to support; there were 1.9 million of these individuals in the program in 2008, and in 2015, there were 4.7 million able-bodied workers in the program (due to the work requirement waivers granted by President Obama).  Individuals within this demographic will have to work or volunteer for a minimum number of hours each month to receive support.  The reforms to TANF are similar.

To reform housing programs, Jordan’s bill will consolidate the nine different housing programs funding by the federal government, provide block grants (that are capped for five years, then phased out the following five years), and require the block grants to have federal reporting requirements for oversight.

In the aforementioned op-ed, the lawmakers wrote, “we want a more affordable welfare system, but we also want inspired, self-reliant citizens, capable of leading productive and happy lives.”  Their goal with this legislation, to make “poverty not tolerable, but temporary.”  In order to win the War on Poverty, the right tools and incentives need to be created so families and individuals can learn to swim instead of just staying afloat.

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