Ever wonder why we’re losing the War on Poverty, launched nearly 60 years ago by President Lyndon B. Johnson? Ask Abraham Maslow.
“What happens to man's desires when there is plenty of bread and when his belly is chronically filled?” the famed psychologist asked in his seminal 1943 paper first outlining what would become known as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In that paper, Maslow categorized five core human needs, each to be fulfilled before the next can be actualized.
First, there are physiological needs (food and water), followed by safety needs (order, low crime), then love and belonging (friendship and family), esteem (self-respect, respect from others and achievement), and finally, self-actualization. Maslow described self-actualization as the individual “doing what he is fitted for.” The musician, he explained, must make music, just as the artist must paint. “What man can be, he must be.”
Using Maslow’s framework, we can better evaluate government welfare and education programs. The War on Poverty hasn’t been lost due to a lack of spending (over $30 trillion) on what has swelled to 89 means-tested welfare programs. It’s been lost because federal welfare spending undermines something closely aligned to the higher order aspirations of Maslow’s hierarchy.
When Johnson launched his “war” in 1964, the original goal was to “give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities.” In other words, to have the physiological needs satisfied in order to climb the hierarchy toward greater fulfillment and happiness. Ironically, Johnson’s efforts and the welfare state have focused exclusively on physical needs but have undermined higher-order human needs. For example, the need for “love, affection and belongingness” is fulfilled primarily within families. It thrives in the strong emotional bonds between wives and husbands and between parents and children.
Regrettably, the growth of the welfare state has coincided with the collapse of the family in low-income communities. When the War on Poverty began, 7% of American children were born outside marriage. Today the number is 41% — and the welfare state has clearly contributed to this decline. Welfare has too often served as a substitute for fathers and husbands, displacing them from the home and limiting their role in society. Even worse, most welfare programs actively impose financial penalties on low-income parents if they marry.
The same is true for the need for self-respect and accomplishment. This need is most typically fulfilled through work. Yet we see a continuing decline in labor force participation among working-age adults. This decline is most pronounced among middle-educated, non-married men. As the welfare state has displaced these men from their traditional roles as husbands and breadwinners, their commitment to work has declined. Thus, the welfare state has doubly impoverished them, depriving them of both marriage and work. It should be no surprise that the opioid crisis occurred predominantly among this group.
Thus, the War on Poverty has harmed the nation with respect to higher-order human need. Yet the Biden administration seeks to double down on this approach. It is aggressively pursuing the largest expansion in mean-tested welfare in U.S. history.
Doubling down on failure is particularly true in the realm of education. When Lyndon Johnson launched the Great Society, he said that one-third of the War on Poverty would be fought in the classrooms of America. So, in 1965, Johnson signed into law Head Start (a federal early education program for low-income children), the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the largest law governing K-12 education with massive spending for lower-income school districts), and the Higher Education Act (creating the first broadly available college subsidies).
More than $2 trillion has been spent since that time just on the K-12 programs. In higher education, Americans now owe $1.7 trillion in outstanding student loan debt cumulatively, the vast majority of which is on the taxpayer balance sheet.
Massive federal spending has not improved education outcomes for low-income students, nor catapulted us past our mediocre international standing. And it has only inflated the cost of college without increasing the percentage of low-income Americans who hold bachelor’s degrees. As economist Richard Vedder explains, around 12% of recent college graduates were from families in the bottom quartile of the income distribution in 1970, a figure which is slightly lower today.
Yet the massive and ineffective education spending of the War on Poverty pales in comparison to what the Biden administration has planned. His misnamed American Families Plan would spend $225 billion on a new federal childcare program that preferences center-based care over family and in-home provider care. It would also spend an astounding $200 billion on “free” universal preschool for all 3-year-old and 4-year-old children.
In addition to this likely driving up the cost of preschool broadly, it’s unlikely to benefit participating children. The bulk of the scientifically rigorous evaluations of preschool programs yield consistently negative findings: any benefits fade out over time.
In higher education, the plan is a massive liberal wish list. It includes items like $109 billion for “free” community college, when more than half of students in community colleges already do not pay any part of their tuition or fees under existing federal aid.
Indeed, there are few aspects of family life that this plan doesn’t try to replace with government services. The plan would also further expand free school meals to non-poor students, would send billions to K-12 schools for teacher training, and would create a massive federal paid family leave program.
These programs may address some basic, material needs, but they do not address – and even undermine – the higher-order needs that cannot be met by the state; those that can only be provided in any meaningful way by families and civil society.
Economist Thomas Sowell once said, “It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.” The American Families Plan would do just that, making those basic needs more expensive, distantly provided, and ultimately, placing them in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.