The Great Society program was a failure. Want proof? There are still poor people. About two-thirds as many. (More)

Whine & Cheese, Part II – That Solution Won’t Fix Everything

This week Morning Feature samples our national whines. Yesterday we sipped a common variety: This Problem Shouldn’t Exist. Today we taste a more full-bodied vintage: That Solution Won’t Fix Everything. Tomorrow we’ll ask Fred for a better whine list.

Google [Great Society failure] and you get about 10 million hits. Pat Buchanan weighed in after Hurricane Katrina. So did a former welfare mom named Star Parker, who says the cure for black poverty is freedom, free markets, faith, and personal responsibility. The conservative meme is that the Great Society replaced faith and fatherhood with government, making poor people more dependent and poverty more inescapable.

Is a one-third reduction “success?”

According to a 2008 Census Bureau report, in 1959 the official poverty rate in the United States was about 22%. It’s hard to estimate the poverty rate for much of U.S. history. It was greater during depressions, but the historical norm seems to have 20-25%. By 1964, when President Johnson announced his Great Society programs, the poverty rate had fallen to 19%. What did those programs accomplish? How about this:

PovertyRateTimelineThe poverty rate is on the bottom, and it dropped from 19% in 1964 to 12% in 1970. It has remained between 11% and 15% since, rising and falling with the rest of the economy. The Great Recession pushed the poverty rate to a 15-year high in 2009 at 14.3%, and it may have risen since. (The Census Bureau has not yet released figures for 2010.)

Our welfare system was not as successful as European systems, and the U.S. poverty rate is higher for blacks and Hispanics (about 25% in 2009). But on average, the Great Society cut poverty by at least one-third. If a program had cut the homicide rate, the teen pregnancy rate, or the divorce rate by one-third, it would be heralded as a stunning success.

So why do conservatives label the Great Society a failure? There are lots of reasons, but one is a very common whine.

That Solution Won’t Fix Everything.

We hear that a lot in political dialogue. Sometimes it reflects a genuine belief that we could and should do more. Most of the progressive complaints about the 2010 Affordable Care Act fell into this category. Sometimes it’s an honest admission that a proposal is only a first step. But often it’s an excuse to do nothing, because we don’t believe a problem really exists or don’t want to solve it. It sets an impossible standard – Fix Everything – and declares any proposed solution inadequate.

We see it in response energy and climate change, for example. Wind and solar power won’t be enough. Conservation won’t be enough either. So drill baby drill.

The premises of that argument are true. Wind and solar power alone won’t be enough, at least not soon. Conservation alone won’t be enough either. As we saw last September, no one solution will Fix Everything on energy and climate change. But while each individual solution is incomplete, together those incomplete solutions form the best solution available. Doing nothing – except drill baby drill – is an absurd conclusion … unless you’re in the drill-baby-drilling business.

The more you study….

An old joke often makes the rounds of high school and college campuses. It goes something like this:

The more you study, the more you learn. The more you learn, the more you forget. The more you forget, the less you know. Therefore: the more you study, the less you know. So why study?

Most students don’t see that as a legitimate academic plan, but it’s a good excuse to set the books aside and head to the student union for a couple of hours. It’s a lighthearted way to say “I need a break.” And if the words on the page have begun to swim together, you may indeed have solved as much of the prepare-for-the-exam problem as you can, at least for the time being. Sometimes we do need to call Good Enough “good enough” … before we break it.

But students who adopt that joke as their academic plan tend to regret it. So do citizens who adopt That Solution Won’t Fix Everything as their political whine of choice. Whether analyzing policies or showing up to vote, we can almost always say That Solution Won’t Fix Everything.

But neither will Doing Nothing.


Happy Friday!