However, if poverty and welfare policies are judged by their effectiveness in providing for the minimal needs of the poor while dramatically reducing poverty in a society over time, then America before 1965 could be said to have had the most successful welfare policy in world history. By the same benchmark, post-1965 poverty programs have failed.
Of course, the Founders had never claimed that all poverty was caused by bad character. Jefferson’s poor law had made a clear distinction between those who were able to work but preferred not to and those whose age or disability prevented them from working. The new approach tended to blame indiscriminately what later came to be called “the system” for poverty of every kind.
For, in the last analysis, if it is true, what is its strictly logical consequence? It is that activity, well-being, wealth, and happiness are possible only for stupid nations, mentally static, to whom God has not given the disastrous gift of thinking, observing, contriving, inventing, obtaining the greatest results with the least trouble. On the contrary, rags, miserable huts, poverty, and stagnation are the inevitable portion of every nation that looks for and finds in iron, fire, wind, electricity, magnetism, the laws of chemistry and mechanics—in a word, in the forces of Nature—an addition to its own resources, and it is indeed appropriate to say with Rousseau: "Every man who thinks is a depraved animal."
U.S. Department of Commerce, Survey of Current Business, Vol. 44, No. 4 (April 1964), p. 11 (percent of American families with less than $3,000 annual income in 1954 dollars). This figure is comparable to the “below poverty level” numbers that the government began to report in 1947, because the below-$3,000 percentage in 1947 was 35, which is close to the 32 percent officially reported poor in that year.
Many today fail to note that antipoverty programs can easily have a corrupting effect if they are not set up in a way that promotes rather than breaks down the morality of self-restraint and self-assertion that is a necessary foundation of what Jefferson called “temperate liberty.” Both Jefferson and Franklin supported laws that encourage responsibility toward family and community, self-sufficiency, and industriousness. They understood that political liberty rests on the moral character of a people.
From Jefferson’s standpoint, poverty programs that help people who choose not to work are unjust. Far from being compassionate, compelling workers to support shirkers makes some men masters and other men slaves: Workers are enslaved to nonworkers. That violates a fundamental principle of the Declaration of Independence.
In a short essay, it might be difficult to tackle the cause and all of the many effects of a big event like the Great Depression. To narrow a cause and effect topic down to a manageable size, ask yourself…
Let us step back for a moment and look at poverty from a wider perspective. If we rank poverty and welfare policies in terms of quantity of money and material goods given to people who are poor, then today’s policies are far more effective than the Founders’. Benefit levels are much higher, and far more people are eligible for support. That is what leads historians like Michael Katz to condemn the earlier approach as a failure.
Before 1965, most Americans believed that property rights and the marriage-based family were the most effective means to get people out of poverty. After 1965, government policy and elite opinion turned against the older view.