The View From 1776

Robber Baron for President?

John Edwards, a multi-millionaire, tort-bar lawyer, hopes to inflame our cultural divisions by reviving socialism’s economic-class-warfare.
Thomas E. Brewton

Former Senator John Edwards, who was John Kerry’s vice presidential running mate in the 2004 election campaign, has just announced his candidacy for the office of President.

His campaign theme is ending the “Two Americas” of haves and have-nots by ending poverty.

A December 28, 2006, Wall Street Journal article by Jackie Calmes reports:

[Edwards] previewed his emerging antipoverty program most comprehensively in an address in June at Washington’s National Press Club.

In that speech, he set a national goal of ending poverty in 30 years for the 37 million Americans living below the poverty line, lifting one-third of them above it in each of the next three decades. His “Working Society” agenda would mean a higher federal minimum wage, reduced taxes for low-income workers, universal health care, and one million new housing vouchers for working families, to help them find homes in neighborhoods with better schools.

Mr. Edwards proposes “Work Bonds” to provide tax credits to match low-wage workers’ own long-term savings. He calls for the government to partner with nonprofit organizations to create a million “stepping stone” jobs, to help welfare recipients and others get experience on local projects so they can go on to better-paying private-sector jobs. And he would open “second-chance schools” aimed at the increased number of high-school students who drop out before graduating.

This, of course, is a re-warming of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society “war on poverty,” the corrosive set of programs that split American society and led to the worst inflation in our history.

Ironically, the Great Society was designed to bring the blacks and other ethnic and social groups up to a parity with whites.  Instead, it under-cut almost all the progress they had made since the Civil War, leaving them far worse off than before.

As Charles Murray documented with the government’s own statistics in Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950 - 1980, the numbers of people with cash incomes (including welfare benefits) under the poverty line had been dropping every year after World War II.  Then startlingly, the pattern reversed.  While poverty spending increased in the Johnson administration, a period of burgeoning prosperity, the numbers of people below the poverty line increased from 23 million to 29 million. 

Liberals argued fallaciously that the increase reflected bad economic conditions.  In fact, poverty dropped more than 12% during the Eisenhower Presidency, when economic growth average only 2.7% per year, while poverty rose 26% during the 1970s, when the economic growth rate was 18.5% higher.

The real answer was simple.  It was a matter of changing public attitudes.  Liberalism’s social-justice actually promoted the growth of poverty.  As Charles Murray noted, the poor are poor, not stupid.  For lots of ill-educated, low income people, living fairly comfortably on welfare, without having to work at all, was a better deal than working for a living at only a slightly higher level of income. 

Similar counter-productive patterns were evidenced in employment, wages, education, crime, and family stability.

The Office of Economic Opportunity spent billions of dollars on job training programs and other efforts to move people off welfare and into the active work force.  Black male unemployment declined 38% in the 55-to-64 age group.  But the percentage improvement was progressively less as one went further down the age scale, with unemployment dropping only 1.6% among those in the 25-to-34 age bracket. 

Among black men who were too young to have been participants in the work force before the start of the Great Society entitlements programs, results were dramatically worse.  Unemployment in the 20-to-24 age group increased 18.6%.  At the youngest age bracket measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those 16-to-17 years old, unemployment jumped 72.4%. 

What was going on?  Older black men, who had always worked, improved as a group.  But black teenagers had all their young lives heard politicians telling them that they had been robbed of their entitlements by the white establishment.  Starting at the low end of the economic ladder and working their way up over a period of years was considered beneath their dignity.  With welfare case workers actively soliciting them to sign up for benefits, the career of welfare dependency seemed more attractive.

In another irony, Mr. Edwards made his candidacy announcement in a flood-damaged section of New Orleans, a city demonstrably brought to moral ruin and economic impotence by generations of welfare handouts that began with Huey P. Long in the late 1920s.

Federal statistics for labor force participation ? defined as people with jobs or seeking jobs ? display a pattern never before seen in this country.  Historically, black men had always had the same percentage labor force participation rates as whites, and that pattern continued under the Great Society among older blacks.  But the percentage of young black men working or looking for jobs dropped sharply the farther down the age scale one went.  Two out of every three black youths aged 16-to-17 had never even looked for work.

Education just fell off the cliff during the Great Society.  In 1960 the U.S. Office of Education commissioned tests in 987 high schools.  Average scores in the General Academic Aptitude tests for black students were 68% of those for whites.  A similar block of tests in 1965 reflected solid progress by black students, whose test scores rose to 79% of whites? scores.  After 1965, and especially in the 1970s, Great Society funding for education rose rapidly.  In 1980, however, the nationwide average for black men in the 18-to-23 age group had declined to only 43% of whites? scores, little more than half the level of competence achieved fifteen years earlier.  It almost seemed that the government was paying young blacks not to learn.

Crime statics reveal the same dismal picture.  Violent crime rates were almost unchanged from 1950 to 1964, at a ratio of 160 crimes per 100,000 persons in the population.  Starting in 1965, the rate took off like a rocket.  By 1980, the ratio of violent crimes per 100,000 population had increased 263%, to 580 per 100,000. 

Liberals have always maintained that social-justice income redistribution would eliminate crime.  The theory is that the existence of private property rights creates aggressive behavior such as crime and warfare.  The same theme emerged among academics when they declared that 9/11 was our fault, that our wealth had provoked Al Queda.

The actual result of massive income redistribution via taxes and welfare entitlements was that Great Society welfare benefits permitted young black males to drop out of the work force altogether, and its political rhetoric fostered the idea that blacks were victims of society.  Some of them felt justified in turning to criminal pursuits. 

Reinforcing this pattern was the catastrophic rise in the number of teen-age, unmarried, single-parent families, in which little or no parental discipline is exercised in most cases.  Between 1955 and 1980, the ratio of births to unmarried black teenage women, compared to all black teenage births, rose from 14% to 82%.  In other words, among black teen-age girls, who are the highest birth-rate sector of the population, eight out of every ten births was to an unmarried mother. 

Much of this can be accounted for by the incentive of higher welfare payment amounts to unmarried mothers, as well as the increases in benefits payments with each new illegitimate child.  The welfare system also encouraged irresponsibility among young men, who were able to rationalize that the mothers would be financially better off, because welfare payments would be less if a father were living with the family.   

In basing his campaign on a re-run of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, John Edwards is counting on voters’ ignorance of our nation’s recent history, or else he thinks we are stupid.

Visit MoveOff Network Members