Fifty years and $20 trillion ago, a well-intentioned President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty and launched his Great Society programs that were supposed to accomplish the laudable goal of lifting more African Americans out of poverty and into the middle class.
Many wags have noted that it was poverty that won the war on poverty. Things did not work out according to plan. As Fred Siegel writes in City Journal:
Today, a substantial black middle class exists, but its primary function has been, ironically, to provide custodial care to a black underclass—one ever more deeply mired in the pathologies of subsidized poverty.
Siegel wrote these words in a glowing review of Wall Street Journal writer Jason Riley’s new book. Riley has advice for white liberals who want to help African Americans and he sums it up succinctly in the book’s title: Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make it Harder for Blacks to Succeed. I haven’t read Jason’s book yet, but Siegel’s review guarantees that I shall.
Since the war on poverty was launched, social pathologies such as illegitimacy have proliferated among African Americans. Today more than 70 percent of African American babies are born to single mothers. Growing up in a single-parent household, even if the parent dearly loves her child, puts that child at a higher risk of poverty.
Not only is the Great Society implicated in the breakdown of black families, but liberals seem to think the cure to poverty is more and more of the same. But as Siegel writes:
Riley attributes the breakdown of the black family to the perverse effects of government social programs, which have created what journalist William Tucker calls “state polygamy.” As depicted in an idyllic 2012 Obama campaign cartoon, “The Life of Julia,” a lifelong relationship with the state offers the sustenance usually provided by two parents in most middle-class families.
I am a fan of Riley’s work and enjoy his appearances on TV, where he is often the iconoclast on whatever topic is before the panel. I guess that I am surprised to find that his formative years were more hardscrabble than I would have imagined. His parents were divorced and both his sisters became part of the inner city drug culture. One died from a drug overdose, while the other became a single mother. One of his nieces asked the bookish Riley, “Why you talk white, Uncle Jason?”
According to Siegel, Riley posits that the very “help” offered by liberals is what has made rising in society so difficult for African Americans:
The compulsory “benevolence” of the welfare state, borne of the supposed expertise of sociologists and social planners, undermined the opportunities opened up by the end of segregation. The great hopes placed in education as a path to the middle class were waylaid by the virulence of a ghetto culture nurtured by family breakdown. Adjusted for inflation, federal per-pupil school spending grew 375 percent from 1970 to 2005, but the achievement gap between white and black students remained unchanged. Students at historically black colleges and universities, explained opinion columnist Bill Maxwell, “did not know what or whom to respect. For many, the rappers Bow Wow and 50 Cent were as important to black achievement as the late Ralph Bunche, the first black to win a Nobel Peace Prize, and Zora Neale Hurston, the great novelist.”
“Why study hard in school,” asks Riley, “if you will be held to a lower academic standard? Why change antisocial behavior when people are willing to reward it, make excuses for it, or even change the law to accommodate it?”
Siegel quotes Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became an orator and statesman and who in 1865 posed a famous question: “What should we do with the Negro?” Riley’s answer to that question, according to Siegel, is the same as Douglass’—nothing. Let us rise on our own, Riley and Douglass say. As the Obama 2012 campaign’s “Life of Julia” infomercial makes clear, this may not be a politically popular answer.