Politics & Government

War on poverty failed because it trapped people with handouts, Andy Barr says

President Lyndon B. Johnson visited Tom Fletcher's house in Martin County in 1964 and listened as Fletcher talked of struggling to support his family. Johnson declared a war on poverty that day that led to trillions of dollars in federal spending, largely through benefits programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, public housing and food stamps.
President Lyndon B. Johnson visited Tom Fletcher's house in Martin County in 1964 and listened as Fletcher talked of struggling to support his family. Johnson declared a war on poverty that day that led to trillions of dollars in federal spending, largely through benefits programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, public housing and food stamps. Bettmann/CORBIS

The federal government’s war on poverty was an expensive failure that made generations of Americans dependent on handouts, says U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, who is promoting a conservative alternative this election year.

Barr has co-authored a report for the House Republican Study Committee that recommends sweeping changes in federal benefits for the poor. There would be more work requirements and lifetime limits, similar to what Congress imposed on welfare recipients in 1996. The federal government might turn over programs, such as food stamps, disability payments and public housing, to the states in the form of block grants, while encouraging states to narrow eligibility and eliminate fraud.

“This centers around work,” Barr said in a recent interview. “What we recognize in our recommendations is that work is not a punishment; work is a blessing. It’s a ticket to upward mobility. And we think poor people are not liabilities to be managed by some distant welfare bureaucracy in Washington. Instead, poor people are assets, they’re untapped assets whose lives need to be enlivened through work incentives.”

Barr’s report singles out the state of Kansas for praise. Kansas has reduced lifetime limits for its cash-assistance welfare recipients, from the five years allowed by federal law to two years, to push people into the job market. As intended, the number of Kansans collecting welfare has plummeted. However, data released in April by the nonpartisan Kansas Health Institute indicates that few families — just 9 percent in 2014 — reported having employment as they lost their welfare payments, down from 41 percent under the five-year limits in 2006. Slightly more than half said they had no other income when their benefits ended.

Barr also envisions a greater role for private investors and nonprofit or faith-based organizations to get involved in federally backed programs. He often gives the example of St. James Place, a privately run housing program in Lexington that is federally subsidized to help veterans and other homeless people overcome their drug and alcohol addictions, save money and launch independent lives in homes of their own.

The report, titled “Strengthening Our Safety Net To Empower People,” was combined with other GOP policy papers into a domestic agenda that House Speaker Paul Ryan unveiled in June. The contributors, including Barr, have spent the summer speaking to groups and writing opinion pieces to promote the agenda, which they say would take the form of House legislation starting in January.

“If we’re given the privilege of leading the majority again, this is the anti-poverty plan for the next Congress,” Barr said.

Critics say there’s plenty of room to improve federal programs, but Barr is wrong to dismiss the war on poverty as a failure.

During a panel discussion last month at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, Georgetown University economist Harry J. Holzer told Barr, “There are all kinds of half-truths in this report.” Food stamps save millions of Americans from going hungry, while Medicare makes life more secure for the elderly, Holzer said.

Back in Central Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District, Barr’s Democratic challenger on Nov. 8, Nancy Jo Kemper, said she isn’t impressed by his suggestion that poor people “just need to get a job.” For one thing, many poor people already work or desperately want to, Kemper said.

“Part of my complaint with this,” Kemper said, holding a copy of Barr’s report at her campaign office, “is how much it blames the poor for their poverty, rather than our failure as a society to help with job training, child-care expenses, reliable transportation, health insurance, minimum-wage increases — all of which could lift people out of poverty. He says quite strongly that Washington bureaucrats cannot lift people out of poverty. And I beg to differ. You have only to point to increasing the minimum wage to see what it does to add a boon to the whole economy.”

Andy’s awareness of what people go through and how easy it is to become poor in just a blink ... Those kinds of problems I’m quite sure are beyond Congressman Barr’s experience.

Nancy Jo Kemper, Democratic nominee for Kentucky’s 6th Congressional District

Kemper said she has witnessed poverty, not only as a church minister counseling those in need but as a working single mother of two children.

“There were many times that I really had to stretch the peanut butter jar to make it, and I could not make ends meet at the end of the month. I did not pay off my credit cards until I retired,” Kemper said. “Andy’s awareness of what people go through and how easy it is to become poor in just a blink ... Those kinds of problems I’m quite sure are beyond Congressman Barr’s experience.”

An attorney until he was elected to Congress in 2012, Barr grew up in a well-to-do Lexington family. His share of the Barr family trust is valued at between $100,000 and $250,000, according to his 2016 personal finance report.

Barr said he was chosen by House GOP leaders to recommend anti-poverty strategies, along with U.S. Rep. Todd Young, R-Ind., because of the people he represents.

“In my congressional district, we have many counties — of course, we have urban poverty in Central Kentucky and Lexington, just like every other congressional district in this country,” he said. “There are 47 million Americans struggling in poverty. I meet with my constituents who are struggling in poverty.”

Trying to measure poverty

President Lyndon B. Johnson came to Eastern Kentucky in 1964 to declare “a national war on poverty. Our objective: total victory.”

Johnson threw a barrage of federal programs at the problem, including Medicaid and Medicare to provide health insurance for the disabled, poor and elderly; food stamps to subsidize groceries for families; job training to get youths and unemployed adults into the workforce; Head Start to give poor children access to quality daycare; and expanded welfare and public housing to keep the poorest from ending up on the streets.

In his 1971 memoirs, Johnson acknowledged mixed results.

“There was no magic formula,” he wrote. “We had to try a wide variety of approaches. Some worked better than others. Some failed completely.”

After 50 years of the war on poverty and trillions of taxpayer dollars spent, I think it’s fair to say that Washington has failed many Americans who are most in need. Worse, bureaucratic inertia has crept into government officials who refuse to give up on failing policies that they almost treat as dogma.

U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington

Barr said he views the whole enterprise as a loss. The congressman puts the price for the war on poverty at $16 trillion in some remarks and $22 trillion in others. Either way, it clearly failed because “poverty rates have been essentially level,” he said. “We haven’t really moved the needle.”

“After 50 years of the war on poverty and trillions of taxpayer dollars spent, I think it’s fair to say that Washington has failed many Americans who are most in need,” Barr said last month at the panel discussion in Washington. “Worse, bureaucratic inertia has crept into government officials who refuse to give up on failing policies that they almost treat as dogma.”

The strength of Barr’s case depends on which statistics are used. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the official poverty rate in the United States has dropped only from 19 percent in 1964 to 15 percent today.

But many economists, and the Census Bureau itself, no longer consider the poverty rate to be an accurate measure. It was invented in the 1960s during the Johnson administration, set at three times the cost of a basic diet, with regular adjustments for inflation. It misses what families spend on housing and health care, and when it considers income, it doesn’t take into account the anti-poverty benefits many poor people collect, such as food stamps or the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is paid to the working poor.

As measured by the Supplemental Poverty Measure, the number of Americans in poverty fell from 26 percent of the population in the mid-1960s to 15 percent in 2015

So in 2011, the Census Bureau introduced a more comprehensive formula, the Supplemental Poverty Measure. By that count, the number of Americans in poverty fell from 26 percent of the population in the mid-1960s to 15 percent in 2015 — a considerable reduction overall, even steeper for children and senior citizens.

“If you measure poverty correctly, not using the official rate, which has a lot of flaws, but what the Census Bureau calls the supplemental rate, it actually has declined over time,” said Holzer, the economist, addressing Barr in Washington. “And it’s pretty easy to link those declines to some of the programs that are demonized in this report.”

‘Promote the general welfare’

Dean Hammond has expertise in assisting the poor. Hammond is past chairman of the nonprofit Foundation for Affordable Housing in Lexington, which runs St. James Place. Hammond advocates a tough-love philosophy of helping people put their lives in order so they can stand on their own feet and walk away. The key word is “transition,” Hammond said.

That’s not how government programs tend to operate, he said.

“I have been in public housing where they have moved people around so that multiple generations of the same family can live next door to each other,” said Hammond, who traveled to Washington to attend last month’s panel discussion about Barr’s report. “To me, that’s not success, generation after generation living in public housing.”

I have been in public housing where they have moved people around so that multiple generations of the same family can live next-door to each other. To me, that’s not success, generation after generation living in public housing.

Dean Hammond, past chairman of the nonprofit Foundation for Affordable Housing in Lexington, which runs St. James Place

“He (Barr) is saying ‘Let’s do something that has an effect.’ Just giving people things doesn’t have an effect. We want to help them up. Are they getting up? Are they going anywhere? He believes we really need accountability. I agree,” Hammond said.

Barr’s report calls for studies to determine whether federal anti-poverty programs produce independent citizens or simply warehouse families. Innovative nonprofit programs like St. James Place help people to grow, Barr says, while government-run public housing projects “encourage broken homes, broken communities and low self-worth among residents.”

“It is unclear whether the federal government should play a central role in subsidizing housing,” the report says. “These programs should be open to faith-based, charity and nonprofit organizations. Additionally, the federal government should encourage private investment in public housing. Housing authorities should be permitted to use profits to build units without government assistance and reduce the need for federal funding.”

Kemper, Barr’s Democratic challenger and former executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, said she welcomes the contributions of private charities. But she does not want to see the federal government hand its basic duties over to others.

“It’s not the responsibility of religious institutions — which increasingly are smaller and smaller in proportion to the population, by the way — to take care of the general citizenry,” Kemper said. “The Constitution says the purpose of our government is to promote the general welfare, and that seems to me to mean that we look after one another and keep people from falling into this dire poverty.”

John Cheves: 859-231-3266, @BGPolitics

Barr’s anti-poverty plan

U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, co-authored the House Republicans’ anti-poverty plan, “Strengthening Our Safety Net to Empower People.” Its recommendations include:

  • Set lifetime limits on more government benefits, following the example of the five-year limit imposed in 1996 on welfare recipients.
  • Establish work requirements for able-bodied adults who collect benefits.
  • Encourage marriage by eliminating benefits reductions now imposed on married couples.
  • Investigate abuse of the Earned Income Tax Credit and prohibit illegal immigrants from getting it. Award the EITC with every paycheck rather than once a year.
  • Turn food stamps, disability payments, public housing and other federal benefits over to the states through block grants. Make the block grants part of the annual appropriations process that Congress must approve. Give states flexibility to run the programs with tighter standards.
  • Let private organizations run some public housing and award housing vouchers so poor people can move to neighborhoods where jobs are available.
  • Redirect some housing funds to addiction treatment programs, including those run by faith-based organizations.
  • Authorize “social-impact bonds” to allow private investors to finance anti-poverty projects, to be reimbursed with federal funds if projects meet established goals.
  • Allow for universal tax-free savings accounts at banks to encourage saving.
  • Set aside part of benefits programs’ budgets to pay for studies that determine if the programs work.
  • End “categorical eligibility,” where people are automatically awarded one benefit (such as Medicaid) because they already get another (such as Supplemental Security Income).
  • Withhold benefits from people who test positive for illegal drugs.
  • Expand eligibility for federal student financial aid to universities not accredited by the federal government to provide more competition.
  • Repeal Common Core educational standards in K-12 public schools.
  • Repeal the U.S. Department of Labor’s “fiduciary rule” requiring investment advisers to disclose financial conflicts of interest to clients.
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