When did it all start to go wrong? In the early 20th Century, Americans fighting poverty not only lost sight of the goal—lifting families up—but even of the problem itself, and instead sought to remake society through government intervention, often at the expense of the very people they were meant to help.
In 1920, Owen Lovejoy, president of the National Conference of Social Work, set a “new task” for the increasing number of social workers—they would become “social engineers,” who would create “a divine order on earth as it is in heaven.”
As Marvin Olasky writes in his book, “Renewing American Compassion,” such a goal is far too lofty for individual acts of charity; “As some leaders forgot that compassion means suffering with, they looked more and more to government. They combined power seeking (for the good of others, of course) with social universalistic faith.”
Who has time to worry about that man under the bridge when we’re remaking the world?
This helps to explain failures in the war on poverty. Even setting aside the Great Depression and World War II, our most concentrated efforts have failed to move the needle on the official poverty rate.
Nationally, about $25 trillion (adjusted for inflation) have been spent to combat poverty since 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on poverty” engendered the Great Society. And the nation spends about $1 trillion per year on more than 80 federal safety-net programs. However, the country’s official poverty rate was declining before 1964, which was the primary measure available, but remained virtually unchanged between 10-15% since then, suggesting a failure of these redistributionist measures to substantially mitigate poverty.
In addition to losing sight of the goal, we’ve lost sight of the problem itself—poverty. We haven’t done a good job of defining it, much less fixing it.
To define the official poverty measure, the U.S. Census Bureau provides an estimated income threshold annually. When a family’s income falls below that threshold, they are considered to be in poverty, which the rate was 11.4% in 2020. There are flaws with this measure. So, if we merely look at it, we know a lot less about real poverty than we might think we do. While there are now better measures of poverty based on broader income levels or consumption, which tend to show much lower rates of poverty since 1964, these measures are focused primarily on material things rather than other important issues that influence poverty.
What can we know about other issues related to poverty? We can look at statistical correlations and learn a lot.
The strongest correlation we see with poverty is a job. Employment, in general, drives down poverty, irrespective of wages, although the effect is more pronounced with higher wages. The availability of jobs has a significant impact on poverty in both the present and a decade into the future.
Education matters, as those with a high school diploma have a 24.7% poverty rate. Graduating high school is vital to help stay out of poverty.
Demographics also matter. Perhaps the most powerful demographic structure, and the most powerful predictor of poverty in general, is single motherhood (25.6% poverty rate overall or 46.2% for those with children under 6 years old). Single motherhood is also a strong predictor of intergenerational poverty.
Location matters; for example, there are 41 Texas counties within 100 miles of the U.S.-Mexican border that have been considered “persistently poor,” meaning at least 20% of the residents have been living in poverty for the last 40 years.
Age is also a factor in poverty, but its impact varies depending on other group characteristics. Metro areas with a younger Black population have higher poverty rates, while areas with an older Black population have lower poverty rates.
What does this tell us? It tells us where we can focus our efforts—and it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.
The path forward must consider these facts for increased opportunities for people to find financial self-sufficiency through a more holistic approach to poverty relief through an education, job, training, community, social capital, intact families with a mother and father, and other avenues provided by civil society whereby government provisions are available as a last resort.
This follows much of what’s in the success sequence which is a formula of at least graduating high school, working full-time, and marrying before having kids (in that order) to have a 97% chance of not being in poverty.
By connecting people to work, education, or training, enhancing community-based case management, streamlining safety-net programs, and getting resources to those who need it most, we can provide more opportunities for people to be self-sufficient.
Top Stat: Average hourly earnings (inflation-adjusted) down by 2.6% over last year. Link
Key Point: Total nonfarm employment down 1.2 million jobs since February 2020. Link
Overview: The economic costs of the shutdown recession from February to April 2020 and subsequent policy errors have been persistent and substantial across the nation. The U.S. labor market has been improving, but this is not a “booming economy” as weaknesses remain. This is in spite of Congress adding $6 trillion in deficit spending since January 2020 to reach the new high of $30 trillion national debt. And the Federal Reserve has monetized much of the new debt, leading to 40-year high inflation. Given rampant inflation and a stagnating economy, stagflation is here for the first time since the 1970s. Specifically, the Biden administration, Congress, and the Fed should stop overregulating, overspending, and overprinting, respectively, and instead provide pro-growth policies that support productive activity so that Americans can improve their livelihoods.
High property taxes are not just an urban and suburban problem. In rural Hays County (San Marcos and surrounding), for example, property appraisals are shooting up.
“The overall market value of Hays County’s 2022 preliminary appraisal roll rose to nearly $59 billion, up 53.27% from $38.4 billion in 2021,” the Hays Free Press reports. “Commercial and industrial real property increased in value nearly 41%, up from nearly $3.6 billion in 2021 to $5 billion this year.”
One year. And that burden will have to be shouldered by rural Texans who tend to be older and have less income than their urban counterparts.
Yet opponents of property tax reform will use rural Texans as a prop in their argument. But rural Texans need property tax relief, too. And our plan, which will use state surplus funds to buy down the maintenance and operations (M&O) portion of school taxes (the biggest part of your tax bill), will benefit all property owners in every part of the state. The Foundation’s Lower Taxes, Better Texas plan provides a practical way to achieve this goal while funding critical government provisions.
Some have expressed concern that rural counties won’t be able to pay for their first responders—police and firefighters.
But the fact is, our plan is revenue-neutral and would continue to fund critical government services. It would allow for budgets to grow, but would limit increases in spending to no more than the rate of population growth plus inflation—anything more than that is just growing government. Yet within that framework, both schools and local governments would be fully funded. In fact, if cities, counties and special districts use the same formula (population growth plus inflation) to keep their spending in check, they can use surplus revenues to buy down their own property tax rates.
Sales taxes are also a key part of our longer-term plan.
Some have worried that rural Texas, with its more limited sales tax base, would suffer under our plan to broaden the sales tax to completely eliminate school district M&O property taxes within 10 years. But that’s not the case.
Local governments (i.e. cities, counties, and special purpose districts) would have the option to raise their sales tax rate along with the increased funding from the broader base to eliminate their own M&O property taxes. If they don’t do this because they don’t have a sufficiently large sales tax base, then they have the flexibility to not eliminate their M&O property taxes but rather buy them down over time.
There are also concerns that if the economy takes a hit, the state’s general revenues will decline, forcing higher school district M&O property tax rates in response. But our plan would have the state lower school district M&O property taxes only if there is a sufficient general revenue surplus while making permanent past reductions.
There looks to be at least a $12 billion available in general revenue surplus at the end of the current budget period for this property tax relief. If there is a major recession, then the state could call on state agencies to find savings to soften the blow. That has been done before. And the state could turn to the at least $12 billion in the state’s rainy day fund created to cover unforeseen revenue shortfalls. And school districts are sitting on about $20 billion in excess reserves. That could also help them get through a tough recession.
Property taxes are a major problem for rural Texans, whose budgets are already hurting from high gasoline prices (they drive longer distances), high food prices, and general inflation. Don’t use rural Texans to argue against the relief they need.
Texans are facing a crisis when it comes to paying for their skyrocketing property taxes, inflated bills, and saving for a rainy day. In fact, many Texans are living with the fear that exorbitant taxes could take their home away or keep them from buying their first home. The Foundation has developed a balanced, practical solution to lower property taxes by eliminating the maintenance and operations (M&O) property taxes while also funding the needs for critical services.
Invited Testimony Before the Texas Senate Finance Committee
Did you know there’s a state park in Arkansas where you can search for diamonds—real diamonds? And you get to keep what you find. In April, Adam Hardin was visiting Crater of Diamonds State Park and came across a 2.38 carat stone—the largest found so far this year.
Diamonds can be found in the 37-acre plowed field, but naturally, they’re rare. It’s a little like the successes that can be seen in our nearly 60-year-old War on Poverty: valuable, but rare.
Nationally, about $25 trillion (adjusted for inflation) have been spent to combat poverty since 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty engendered the Great Society. However, the country’s poverty rate was declining before 1964 but remained virtually unchanged since then, suggesting a failure of these redistributionist measures.
But over the years, we’ve learned much. And we know what works in combatting poverty. We also know which key institutions and factors contribute to keeping people in poverty. With good policy—and clearer objectives—we can reverse this trend and truly lift people out of debilitating circumstances that lead to generational poverty.
But first, a little history. The 1920–21 recession was the last major economic downturn in American history that was not met with federal intervention designed to stabilize the economy and mitigate poverty. A decade later, Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt presided over the first large-scale and nationwide anti-poverty measures during the 1930s and the Great Depression.
Despite these large-scale interventions, the unemployment rate remained in double digits for the remainder of the 1930s. More people were dependent on new government programs, and the costly economic effects of these and other government actions reduced both productivity and job creation.
A quarter century later, President Lyndon B. Johnson advocated his War on Poverty as part of domestic policy initiatives commonly called the Great Society. But again, poverty relief programs did not substantially accelerate the poverty rate’s reduction—in fact, the rate of decline slowed before essentially stalling.
Why? Because these efforts failed to address the real drivers of poverty—in many instances, they became drivers of poverty themselves.
There are several factors that are strongly linked with continued poverty and an inability to build income and wealth. The most powerful predictor of poverty in general is single motherhood. Another factor is where you live (including all 41 Texas counties within 100 miles of the U.S.-Mexican border, considered “persistently poor”). And age is also a factor in poverty, but its impact varies depending on other group characteristics. Metro areas with a younger Black population have higher poverty rates, while areas with an older Black population have lower poverty rates.
But possibly the most pertinent factor in keeping people trapped in poverty is an incentive not to work or to be more productive. For example, a “benefits cliff” occurs when a safety-net recipient goes back to work, increases their workload, or accepts a higher rate of pay, resulting in increased total earned income—which then triggers a greater loss of payments from government programs.
What works? Work. Employment, in general, drives down poverty.
By connecting people to work, education, or training, enhancing community-based case management, streamlining safety-net programs, and getting resources to those who need it most, we can create more opportunities for people to be self-sufficient—and thereby reduce the number of Americans experiencing poverty—so long as we have the will, perseverance, and right approach.
Finding diamonds in a field of dirt isn’t easy; nor is providing people with a real path out of poverty. But with diligence, and a keen eye, we can see more and more success.
Vance Ginn, Ph.D.