United States Sen. Mike Lee disagrees with the popularly held belief that America's War on Poverty began with the announcement by President Lyndon B. Johnson nearly 50 years ago.
Speaking to the Heritage Foundation's anti-poverty forum, the Utah Republican said the United States did not formally launch its fight in 1964, "but in 1776: when we declared our independence, and the self-evident and equal rights of all men to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
"For more than 200 years, the United States — through trial and error, through good times and bad — has waged the most successful war on poverty in the history of the world," Lee said. "The tools Americans relied on to overcome poverty were what became the twin pillars of American exceptionalism: our free enterprise economy and voluntary civil society."
Lee said these pillars of success enabled ordinary Americans to make our economy very wealthy and our society truly rich long before Johnson tried to do better by growing and centralizing government authority.
"1964 wasn't the year Americans started fighting poverty. It was the year we started losing that fight," he said.
Sure, the nearly $20 trillion dollars spent to end poverty since 1964 have provided a safety net for many. The book, "Legacies of the War on Poverty" reports that elderly poverty fell from 35 percent in 1959 to under 10 percent in 2010, infant mortality is lower and life expectancy is longer due to Medicaid and community health centers, and the child poverty rate would have been three percentage points higher in 2010 if not for food stamps and other nutrition programs.
But many question the cost — not just in dollars — but in the change from a culture of independence to dependence, especially in Appalachia.
Before announcing the "war," President Johnson took reporters to Martin County, Ky. to show the depth of poverty in Appalachia.
The Lexington Herald Leader reported from Martin County on Sunday. "The problem facing Appalachia today isn't Third World poverty, it's dependence on government assistance," the article stated.
"Instead of talking about a future of work, or a profession, they talk about getting a check," a former school principal said of second and third graders. "That's what they've heard all their lives."
Poverty is no stranger to West Virginia, where 35 percent of children live in homes where no parent has full-time, year-round employment.
Surely, America should provide a safety net for the poor. But as Sen. Lee suggested, the fight against poverty needs to clear obstructions to upward mobility, not encourage long-term dependence.