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New front in the 'war on poverty'

On the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson's 'war on poverty,' government must beef up efforts to support family stability, beyond financial means.

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    Rep. Barbara Lee (D) of Calif., right, and members of the Congressional Black Caucus welcome Lynda Johnson Robb, daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson, during an event on Capitol Hill in Washington Jan. 8, marking the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's declaration of the War on Poverty.
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When President Lyndon B. Johnson launched a “war” on poverty 50 years ago this week, he defined poverty as the lack of opportunity among poor Americans to earn a better income. While the average real income of the poor has certainly improved, a root cause of today’s persistent poverty – family instability – has worsened. And government has only begun to figure out how to help low-income people achieve what it calls “relationship literacy.”

Over the past 15 years, an estimated $800 million has been spent by the federal government and a few states to teach relationship skills to people in order to reduce the number of divorced couples, unwed parents, absentee fathers, and other indicators of family well-being. Many of these causes of poverty are on the rise, especially among those with only a high school degree or less.

In 1964, when L.B.J. pushed through the new social programs, only 6 percent of children were born to unwed mothers. Today, the figure has reached more than 40 percent. Experts know children born and raised outside marriage are more likely to live in poverty. One estimate on the social costs of Americans who put parenthood ahead of marriage is about $112 billion a year.

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But experts disagree on how to address such trends – or even if they should be addressed at all. They even disagree on whether certain government rules and incentives may in fact contribute to family instability and a growing avoidance of marriage.

Improving a person’s economic stability can help family stability – and vice versa. One Oklahoma program aimed at relationship literacy, for example, has reduced the number of children born to single parents by 3 percent, possibly bringing a reduction in poverty. Such efforts, which include “marriage promotion,” remain small and largely untested, however, compared with the nearly $1 trillion spent on government welfare programs each year.

One reason is that forming an intimate relationship and bearing a child are private decisions. They are mostly out of reach of government interference. At best, churches and other religious groups can guide couples on the spiritual, moral, and other aspects necessary for family stability. The government’s role may lie in offering voluntary classroom instruction on how to achieve healthy relationships – but not in personal counseling – while also adjusting any policy that penalizes marriage and family stability.

The quality of the family structure for children – such as single parents who must work part time – remains a big driver of poverty and income inequality in America. “The structure of the family in which a child grows up could have as large an impact as income, or larger, on subsequent economic outcomes,” concludes a 2010 report by Pew’s Economic Mobility Project.

If the “war on poverty” remains unfinished, it is in part because it viewed the poor mostly as victims of social and economic forces without adequate regard for the effect of marriage and family stability on well-being. Fifty years on, government has made small and often faltering steps toward better family stability. Such efforts began under President Bill Clinton with welfare reform, then were expanded under President George W. Bush, and have been pursued to some degree by President Obama.

In his book “The Audacity of Hope,” Mr. Obama wrote: “Policies that strengthen marriage for those who choose it and that discourage unintended births outside of marriage are sensible goals to pursue.”

In his current campaign against income inequality – an echo of L.B.J.’s war on poverty – Obama should not neglect the desire of children to grow up in a stable family. The economic future of those children may rest on it.

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