The “War on Poverty” failed because it institutionalized poverty by providing a hand out instead of a hand up. It’s flawed underlying assumption is that society is 100% to blame for poverty. Maybe society did give some families a bad deal at some time, but you can’t undo the past, you can only look ahead. Let’s look at how personal choices factor into continuing poverty. Two of the biggest factors in poverty are lack of a high school education and young single parenthood, so these are our examples.
Start with a teenage boy who is considering dropping out of school. Now if he has responsible parents they may talk him out of it, but he doesn’t so he makes a choice to drop out. Now, with nothing to do he makes a choice to join a local gang that sells drugs and burglarizes homes. As a consequence of that choice and his activities with the gang he’s arrested and jailed. Several years later he’s a young man with no diploma and a criminal record angrily blaming society because he can’t get a decent job. Society didn’t force him to make those choices, did it?
Now consider a young single mother. She’s a mom because she and a man made a choice to have unprotected sex. Dad isn’t in the picture because he made a choice to not be involved or to pay child support. This is the only point at which society has some power. It can legally force dad to pay child support, thus reducing the burden on both the mom and on society. Maybe mom has a hard time holding a job as a consequence of her drug use. Well, at some time she made a choice to use drugs once, use them twice, and eventually become addicted. Again society didn’t force her to make these choices.
This is not to say society has no responsibility to help the poor; it actually has three. The first is to provide for those who are physically or mentally unable to work, because disability is not a choice. The second is to provide a hand up for those who are able to work that leads to independence from welfare through a combination of temporary support and training that leads to productive work. This approach is similar to the Individual Development Plans that schools use for special needs students, and is precisely what my ISIC plan reflects. The third is to make sure jobs are available. This is accomplished by having a strong economy with minimal wasteful overhead (e.g., government reporting), a fair and simple tax structure, an educated workforce, a supportive infrastructure, and a restored feeling that work can get you ahead in the USA. Real emotional security comes from self-reliance, not dependence on a nanny state that forces you to trade your freedom for security.
Update 2017: Although it’s common to associate bad choices with poverty a recent occurrence at a college shows that bad choices have no socioeconomic boundaries. A large group of students were celebrating in the streets. Most of them behaved but a few chose to get rowdy and destructive; in fact their destruction reached felony level. These young people will have to pay a fine and restitution but probably won’t serve jail time because they don’t have prior criminal records. Their problems, however, are just beginning. The college could kick them out, which seems appropriate if the college is serious about not tolerating destructive behavior. Even if they are allowed to continue, that felony conviction will hang like an albatross around their necks for life. Every time an employer or bank does a background check, there it will be. Career choices will become limited. Here are a few jobs that might not accept felons: jobs requiring a security clearance, jobs in the financial industry, and jobs working with children. A military or law enforcement career is off the table because felons can’t possess firearms. Recreational shooting sports will also be off limits. So here’s a group of young people who have already done far more damage to their futures than they did to the property they destroyed. That’s choice and consequence.