by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
One suspects neither big-government liberals nor cut-as-much-government-as-possible conservatives will agree completely with Avik Roy‘s column in the latest issue of Forbes. He ponders the legacy of the Johnson administration’s civil rights legislation.
People in 1964 could scarcely have imagined that we’d so quickly have a black President and black billionaires and a large black middle class. But midcentury Americans might also have been surprised by the persistence of black poverty, despite massive federal attention to the problem.
In 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 12% of whites lived in poverty; 26% of blacks did. That’s an improvement from 1959, when 55% of black families lived in poverty. But we appear to have reached a ceiling. Despite the $1 trillion a year we spend on antipoverty programs, the rate of black poverty has actually increased since 2000.
To those on the left, the persistence of black poverty is most obviously the result of systemic racism and of the inadequacy in the scale and scope of existing government programs. Conservatives often make the opposite case–that government programs are retarding, rather than advancing, black success.
Both perspectives have their strengths and their weaknesses. If there’s one thing we’ve learned in the past several decades, it is the limits of the ability of federal intervention to solve these problems. We spend $450 billion a year on Medicaid, and yet health outcomes for black people on Medicaid are no different than those for blacks with no health insurance at all.
But the traditional American conservative view–get government out of the way, and everything will work out–is not sufficient to address chronic, intergenerational black poverty.
There are descendants of slaves in America whose families have never known middle-class prosperity, who don’t have the career networks, educational opportunities or cultural resources that other Americans take for granted. Their challenges require our special attention.
One striking fact is that the social integration of blacks with other Americans has lagged behind. …
… Black economic equality won’t be achieved by more federal spending, nor by tax cuts. To fully realize the promise of 1964, all of us–Republican and Democrat; suburban and urban; black, white and brown–simply need to do more to try to live together, as neighbors and relatives. Some things just can’t be legislated.