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Commentary By Jason L. Riley

An Antipoverty Veteran Now Wages War on Dependency

Culture, Economics, Culture Poverty & Welfare, Philanthropy

How Peter Cove came to realize that jobs, not government aid, offered the route to prosperity.

Peter Cove dropped out of a graduate program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison more than 50 years ago to enlist in Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. These days, he’s fighting a war on dependency.

“We have edged toward a moral cliff where the shame of being dependent on government aid has been replaced by a breezy bonhomie for entitlement,” he writes in a new book, “Poor No More.” “We have moved from a commitment to serve the deserving poor to an assumption that all are deserving. And much of this rests at the feet of politicians trolling for votes by larding on the largesse.”

Mr. Cove moved to New York in 1965 to work for the city’s new Anti-Poverty Operations Board, where he helped to write federal grant proposals and determine which local programs were worth funding. Domestic spending had exploded, but quality controls were an afterthought. “At the time, we didn’t know what was working and what wasn’t,” he writes. Activist groups were demanding money for their projects and then conducting sit-ins and trashing welfare offices if their proposals were rejected.

“Soon the War on Poverty became transactional: politicians awarded lucrative contracts to questionable programs in exchange for votes,” writes Mr. Cove, who noticed something else. “The government’s unprecedented expenditures failed to bring about the decline in poverty that Johnson had promised. Instead, they made things worse.”

Between 1962 and 2012, the percentage of the U.S. population receiving government assistance in the form of cash transfers almost doubled to 21% from 11.7%. By 2012 nearly half (48.5%) of Americans lived in households that received some type of government benefit, up from less than a third (30%) in 1983.

Between 1965 and 2011, the official poverty rate was essentially flat, while government spending per person on poverty programs rose by more than 900% after inflation. A 2014 Heritage Foundation analysis marking the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty calculated that “today, government spends 16 times more, adjusting for inflation, on means-tested welfare or anti-poverty programs than it did when the War on Poverty started. But as welfare spending soared, the decline in poverty came to a grinding halt.”

By the 1980s Mr. Cove hadn’t given up on fighting poverty, but he had soured on the Great Society solutions he once championed. He came to understand that the answer to poverty is prosperity, that the private sector is the better generator of prosperity, and that the best antipoverty program is a job. “Not only does big government get in the way when it provides disincentives to work, it also has a profoundly negative effect on community,” he writes. “The more the government does for individuals, the more community is diminished.”

In 1984 Mr. Cove and his wife, Lee Bowes, started the first for-profit welfare-to-work agency in the U.S. The company, America Works, eschews ineffective and easily manipulated job-training programs and places welfare recipients directly into private-sector jobs as quickly as possible. Mr. Cove was convinced that a for-profit job-placement company could outperform state and local welfare agencies and bring “accountability to a field that desperately needed it.” Since its founding, America Works has placed more than a half-million people in jobs that pay on average more than $10 an hour plus benefits.

America Works now operates out of nine states and the District of Columbia, and Mr. Cove attributes its success to close and constant evaluation of the services provided. “This may sound like common sense, but the unfortunate reality is that objective self-review and recalibration are rarely the norm with most social programs,” he explains. “The widespread belief that commitment, good intentions, and good deeds are enough carries the day.”

The increase in government dependency that Mr. Cove laments predates President Obama by decades, but it did accelerate on Mr. Obama’s watch thanks to a deep recession, a weak economic recovery and an ideologically driven determination to expand the reach of the welfare state via programs like ObamaCare. Precious few welfare programs—the earned-income tax credit is one example—require the recipients to work for their benefits, and Mr. Obama suspended many of the work mandates implemented in the 1996 welfare-reform law.

Reversing course ought to be a priority for President Trump, and faster economic growth would pave the way. But there is also a need to revisit federal poverty programs after eight years of relative indifference to their expansion. Mr. Trump doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about the size or scope of government as a problem in itself, but if anyone in his administration is interested in better understanding the deleterious effects of an oversize welfare state, Mr. Cove is an excellent source of clear thinking.

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal


Jason L. Riley is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, and a Fox News commentator.

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal