Journalists love anniversaries because the junior and senior geezers who still consume the news love to be reminded of their misspent youth, where they could consume things more exciting than their current diet of bran, Metamucil, and the nourishing prune. So in May we all got in our time machines and set the controls for 1964 to have a good old wallow in the origins of the Great Society.
The Washington Post managed to carve enough space out of their daily tribute to the magnificent greatness of President Obama to produce a four-part series. I dutifully read all four parts, including: an overview of the period; a look at how the Great Society affected Prince George's County, Maryland; an examination of the Job Corps; and a survey of how federal arts and humanities funding can be traced to the 1960s.
Philip Kennicott, the newspaper’s art and architecture critic, wrote the fourth part. As someone who reads Kennicott all the time, I can tell you that he is a hard lefty who can be a good writer but is a poor reporter. He actually interviewed Ford Foundation president Darren Walker but didn’t get Walker to expound on whether or not, as many people suspect, the creators of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities took what Ford was doing in the arts at the time and blatantly copied them.
To my mind, the best part of the Post’s look at the Great Society was the third part, where David A. Fahrenthold examined the Job Corps, a program started in 1964 and designed to take young people and put them in a military-style “boot camp” where they would spend their days learning useful skills. Fahrenthold quotes Johnson, in a discussion with Dallas Morning News editor Dick West secretly recorded in March 1964, saying the goal of Job Corps was to take young people, “scrub ‘em up, get some tapeworms out of their bellies and get ‘em to where they get up at 6 o’clock in the morning, work all day . . . maybe teach ‘em to be a truck driver or, uh, something.” And if they couldn’t get jobs in the private sector, perhaps the recruits would be fit enough to enlist in the Army.
With all the people in Job Corps in fifty years, there had to be some successes. George Foreman has said he learned to box in Job Corps. But visiting the Job Corps facility at Treasure Lake, Oklahoma, Fahrenthold found that at a cost to the taxpayer of $45,000 per student, only 49 percent graduated and of those, only 55 percent found jobs in the fields they had trained for. He found students more interested in joining gangs or learning how to turn rotting fruit from the cafeteria into prison-style hooch than in learning how to enter the labor force. One anonymous source told Fahrenthold that Job Corps was just like prison, except the beds were nicer.
The Job Corps actually was subjected to a rigorous social-science analysis, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research between 1995-2004 and published in the American Economic Review in 2008. The Mathematica researchers found that students who completed the Job Corps program did enjoy 12 percent higher earnings than those who weren’t accepted, but the wage advantage participants had vanished four years after a participant had left the program. Overall, the Job Corps flunked a benefit/cost test, even when such factors as lower crime and welfare rates were included. “The program—from society’s perspective—does not pay for itself,” Mathematica senior fellow Peter Schochet said.
But at least the Job Corps offers some benefits. As a comprehensive analysis by Nicholas Eberstadt in the May 9 Weekly Standard shows, the Great Society failed to meet most, if not all, of the goals President Johnson set for the program.
Eberstadt is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where I once worked. He’s a super-smart guy and anyone interested in global population trends or in examining the welfare state should take anything he says quite seriously. (And somehow, for reasons I have never fully understood, he is also an expert on North Korea.)
He points out that the best and the brightest who advised LBJ were guilty of what F. A. Hayek called “scientism,” the notion that human behavior could be fine-tuned with the precision that governs the natural sciences. Johnson’s economic advisers assured the president that the economy could precisely deliver steady growth indefinitely. His domestic advisers assured the president that the “poverty gap” could be eliminated in a few years.
After fifty years, the welfare state is about six times as large (in constant dollars) as it was in 1964. American life expectancy has risen, on average, by eight years, and they spend more time in school. And even after the Great Recession, 60 percent of Americans are in the labor force And while the official poverty rate remains stuck at around 11 percent of Americans, consumption surveys from the Bureau of Labor Statistics say that the amount of money poor people are spending is far higher than what they say they are earning. As a result, the poor have access to quite a lot of stuff.
If you decide to count the poor not by income but by the numbers of people who can’t afford to buy the necessities of life, you are counting what economists call “consumption poverty.” According to economists Bruce Meyer of the University of Chicago and James X. Sullivan of the University of Notre Dame, the number of Americans suffering consumption poverty was less than four percent in 2008—and, even after the Great Recession, was still at around 4.5 percent by 2010.
The two lasting achievements of the Great Society, in Eberstadt’s view, are that it ensured that it’s highly unlikely any American will starve and it helped end laws that discriminated against blacks and other minorities. But President Johnson claimed that the ultimate goal of the War on Poverty “is not to make the poor more secure in their poverty but to reach down and to help them lift themselves out of the role of poverty and move with the large majority along the high road of hope and prosperity.” Judged by this noble goal, the War on Poverty was a miserable failure.
And old joke was that in the 1960s, we had a war on poverty and poverty won. No: we had a war on poverty and an ever-more-intrusive welfare state won. Is that the sort of victory we want—or can afford?