Guest Essayist: Robert L. Woodson, Sr.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson announced the launch of a nationwide War on Poverty in 1964, momentary hope arose that it would uplift the lives of thousands of impoverished Americans and their inner-city neighborhoods. But the touted antipoverty campaign of the 60s is a classic example of injury with the helping hand.

Regardless of intention—or mantras—the ultimate measure of any effort to reduce poverty is the impact it has on its purported beneficiaries. After more than 60 years and the investment of $25 trillion of tax-payers’ money, poverty numbers have virtually remained the same, while conditions in low-income neighborhoods have spiraled downward.

While impoverished Americans may not be rising up, what has become a virtual “poverty industry” and the bureaucracy of welfare system has prospered, expanding to 89 separate programs spread across 14 government programs and agencies.  In sum, 70% of anti-poverty funding has not reached the poor but has been absorbed by those who serve the poor. As a consequence, the system has created a commodity out of the poor with perverse incentives to maintain people in poverty as dependents. The operative question became not which problems are solvable, but which ones are fundable.

I had first-hand experience of power and money grabs that followed the launch of Johnson’s antipoverty agenda. As a young civil rights leader at the time of its introduction, I was very hopeful that, at long-last, policies would be adopted that would direct resources to empower the poor to rise. I was working for the summer in Pasadena, California, leading a work project with the American Friends Service Committee in the year after the Watts riots and the government’s response with the War on Poverty.

Initially, the anti-poverty money funded grassroots leaders in high-crime, low-income neighborhoods who had earned the trust and confidence of local people and had their best interests at heart. But many of the local grassroots leaders who were paid by the program began to raise questions about the functions of the local government and how it was assisting the poor. These challenges from the residents became very troublesome to local officials and they responded by appealing to Washington to change the rules to limit the control that those grassroots leaders could exercise over programs to aid their peers.

One of the ways the Washington bureaucracy responded was to institute a requirement that all outreach workers had to be college-educated as a condition of their employment. Overnight, committed and trusted workers on the ground found themselves out of a job. In addition, it was ruled that the allocation and distribution of all incoming federal dollars was to be controlled by a local anti-poverty board of directors that represented three groups: 1/3 local officials, 1/3 business leaders and 1/3 local community leaders. I knew from the moment those structural changes occurred that the poverty program was going to be a disaster and that it would serve the interests of those who served the poor with little benefit to its purported beneficiaries.

Since only a third of the participants on the board would be from the community, the other two-thirds were careful to ensure that the neighborhood residents would be ineffective and docile representatives who would ratify the opportunistic and often corrupt decisions they made. In the town where I was engaged in civil rights activities, I witnessed local poverty agencies awarding daycare contracts to business members on the board who would lease space at three times the market-value rate.

Years of such corruption throughout the nation were later followed by many convictions and the incarceration of people who were exploiting the programs and hurting the poor. When they were charged with corruption, many of the perpetrators used the issue of race to defend themselves. The practice of using race as a shield of defense against charges for corrupt activity continues to this day. The disgraced former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick received a 28-year sentence for racketeering, bribery, extortion and tax crimes. Last year, more than 40 public and private officials were charged as part of a long-running and expanding federal investigation into public corruption in metro Detroit, including fifteen police, five suburban trustees, millionaire moguls and a former state senator. Much of the reporting about corruption in the administration of poverty programs never rose to the level of public outrage or indignation and were treated as local issues.

Yet the failure of the welfare system and the War on Poverty is rooted in something deeper than the opportunistic misuse of funds. Its most devastating impact is in undermining pillars of strength that have empowered the black community to survive and thrive in spite of oppression: a spirit of enterprise and mutual cooperation, and the sustaining support of family and community.

In the past, even during periods of legalized discrimination and oppression, a spirit of entrepreneurship and agency permeated the black community. Within the first 50 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, black Americans had accumulated a personal wealth of $700 million. They owned more than 40,000 businesses and more than 930,000 farms, Black commercial enclaves in Durham, North Carolina and the Greenwood Avenue section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, were known as the Negro Wall Street. When blacks were barred from white establishments and services, they created their own thriving alternative transit systems. When whites refused to lend money to blacks, they established more than 103 banks and savings and loans associations and more than 1,000 inns and hotels. When whites refused to treat blacks in hospitals, they established 230 hospitals and medical schools throughout the country.

In contrast, within the bureaucracy of the burgeoning poverty industry, low-income people were defined as the helpless victims of an unfair and unjust society. The strategy of the liberal social engineers is to right this wrong by the redistribution of wealth, facilitated by the social services bureaucracy in the form of cash payments or equivalent benefits. The cause of a person’s poverty was assumed beyond their power and ability to control and, therefore, resources were given with no strings attached and there was no assumption of the possibility of upward mobility towards self-sufficiency. The empowering notions of personal responsibility and agency were decried as “blaming the victim” and, with the spread of that mentality and the acceptance of a state of dependency the rich heritage of entrepreneurship in the black community fell by the wayside.

Until the mid-60s, in 85% of all black families, two parents were raising their children. Since the advent of the Welfare State, more than 75% of black children were born to single mothers. The system included penalties for marriage and work through which benefits would be decreased or terminated. As income was detached from work, the role of fathers in the family was undermined and dismissed. The dissolution of the black family was considered as necessary collateral damage in a war that was being waged in academia against capitalism in America, led by Columbia University professors Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven who promoted a massive rise of dependency with a goal to overload the U.S. public welfare system and elicit “radical change.”

Reams of research has found that youths in two-parent families are less likely to become involved in delinquent behavior and drug abuse or suffer depression and more likely to succeed in school and pursue higher education. As generations of children grew up on the streets of the inner city, drug addiction and school drop-out rates soared. When youths turned to gangs for identity, protection, and a sense of belonging, entire neighborhoods became virtual killing fields of warring factions. Statistics from Chicago alone bring home the tragic toll that has been taken. Within Fathers’ Day weekend, 104 people were shot across the city, 15 of them, including five children, fatally. Within a three-day period of the preceding week, a three-year-old child was shot and killed in the South Austin community, the third child under the age of 10 who was shot.

In the midst of this tragic scenario, the true casualties of the War on Poverty have been its purported beneficiaries.

Robert L. Woodson, Sr. founded the Woodson Center in 1981 to help residents of low-income neighborhoods address the problems of their communities. A former civil rights activist, he has headed the National Urban League Department of Criminal Justice, and has been a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Foundation for Public Policy Research. Referred to by many as “godfather” of the neighborhood empowerment movement, for more than four decades, Woodson has had a special concern for the problems of youth. In response to an epidemic of youth violence that has afflicted urban, rural and suburban neighborhoods alike, Woodson has focused much of the Woodson Center’s activities on an initiative to establish Violence-Free Zones in troubled schools and neighborhoods throughout the nation. He is an early MacArthur “genius” awardee and the recipient of the 2008 Bradley Prize, the Presidential Citizens Award, and a 2008 Social Entrepreneurship Award from the Manhattan Institute.

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