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The War on Drugs vs. the War on Poverty

May 11, 2009

Geraldo at Large had a segment on California’s discussion over legalizing marijuana. Geraldo said that he has been covering the war on drugs for much of his career, and that Federal, state, and local governments have spent over $1 Trillion, over 1,000 billion, on a failed effort. The Drug Policy Alliance says that the U.S. spends over $40 billion a year on the effort. Another site says:

More than thirty years after the War on Drugs was declared, billions of dollars are being spent every year on a losing battle.

Of course,  law enforcement can point to at least some stats that say the war on drugs is succeeding. Use of illegal drugs has been decreasing.  Another study says the same thing among minors, where the decrease is mostly due to reduced marijuana use.  Of course, California isn’t worried about the success of the drug war, they’re worried about raising tax revenue. Why does CA need the extra money? Because they’re spending a lot on another war, the war on poverty.

The “War on Poverty” started a bit earlier than the war on drugs; Lyndon Johnson declared its inception in 1964. Since then, the United States has spend over $6.98 Trillion. That’s over 6 times the amount spent on the “War on Drugs”.  In 2005, over $620 billion was spent on welfare programs at the state, local and national level. Why aren’t liberals interested in ending THIS waste of money?

Because the War on Poverty is about buying votes. By any objective economic measure, the effort to eliminate hardship by throwing money at it has failed completely. Even NPR says:

But the poverty rate has remained steady since the 1970s and today, Americans have allowed poverty to fall off the national agenda, says Sheldon Danziger, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan.

Note that NPR doesn’t say it’s failed, they just say that Americans are guilty of paying too little attention to the problem.  I’d happily give poverty more ATTENTION, if I can give it less of my income.

The war on poverty may have actually hurt those it was intended to help. Welfare programs create a permanent class of welfare recipients. Means-tested welfare programs give an incentive to recipients to avoid taking on additional income, since they can get the same or greater benefits by not working. 

Many black communities before the Depression had enterprising residents with a rich heritage of entrepeneurship. Likewise, poor whites in many parts of the country had a tradition of working hard to overcome their circumstances. The War on Poverty has sapped many communities of that upward inspiration, replacing it with an entitlement culture in which the poor expect to be fed, housed, and clothed. Indeed, Massachusetts now has a welfare car program, including free registration and car insurance to “the needy”.  The program is justified because it “helps take families off welfare” – except for the free car.

Where is the liberal outrage at the excesses and futility of the War on Poverty?  If their goal is to help the poor, they’d be better off cutting taxes, and encouraging donations to non-profits. Government is a poor distributor of goods and services, while many non-profits do great work with small administrative costs. Maybe this economic crisis is a good opportunity to end the War on Poverty. But more likely, it will be the cause for another offensive effort to expand government and expand the welfare class.

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