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Trump is right: “What do you have to lose?”

Written By | Aug 26, 2016

WASHINGTON, August 26, 2016 — Donald Trump recently asked low-income Americans, who are disproportionately Black and Hispanic, to look around and see what they have after 50 years of Democratic policies that declared a war on poverty.

They have almost nothing, he observed, so if they vote for Trump, “What do you have to lose?”

In January 1964, President Johnson said, “The administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty.” Johnson followed that statement by implementing a number of programs which were designed to raise the income level of people living under the poverty line.

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There were four main pieces of legislation. The Social Security Amendments of 1965 expanded Social Security benefits for widows, the disabled, and for college students. Johnson created the Job Corps and other work initiatives. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act established the Title 1 program which provided funds to poorer school districts. And fourth, Johnson got Congress to pass the Food Stamp Act.

Did we win the war on poverty?

Supporters say “yes.” According to a paper published by professors at Columbia University, the poverty rate dropped from about 26 percent in 1964 to 16 percent by 2013. However, there are different ways to measure the poverty rate, and by some of them, the picture is not that much improved.

By 2014, after 50 years of the war on poverty, more than $22 trillion has been spent and this does not include Social Security and Medicare. The Heritage Foundation points out that this figure, adjusted for inflation, is three times as much that has been spent for “all military wars since the American Revolution.”


According to the US Census Bureau, the poverty rate in 1965 was 17.3 percent. In 2015, the poverty rate was 15 percent. Johnson said, “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” Johnson never wanted his programs to create a massive welfare system, but rather to promote self-sufficiency. He said he would be “making taxpayers out of tax eaters.”

By that standard the programs have failed. Trump asks those who live at or below the poverty line today to simply look at what they have. In general, they are more dependent on the government for sustenance. The food stamp program has exploded, leaving more than 46 million Americans on food stamps.

Most of those in poverty depend on the government for housing assistance. The Census Bureau notes that about 52 million Americans receive housing assistance from the U.S. government. That’s everyone living below the poverty line and many more low-income earners.

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Most low-income earners live in cities. The schools they are forced to attend offer a substandard education, which traps one generation after another in poverty.

“Look around” Trump said. He tells the poor, look at the handouts you receive from the government so that you can afford food, have a place to live and pay for health care. Is this what you want for yourselves and your children? After 50 years of mostly Democratic programs to reduce poverty, is this all you get? Is this all that $22 trillion has bought us?

The poor are trapped in a vicious cycle that keeps them poor and passes their poverty on to their children. Trump has a better idea.

Trump thinks that opportunity is more important than handouts. Cut government spending on these programs and help those who rely on them to become self-sufficient.

Trump says, let’s focus on economic growth and allow school choice. Economic growth will provide opportunity and school choice will give everyone the opportunity to take advantage of the new opportunities.

He’s right. The recipients of government programs have almost nothing, and so they have nothing to lose. They might have a lot to gain. When you’re at the poverty party, sticking with the one who brought you there is like sticking with an abuser. Let go and take a chance on life.

Michael Busler

Michael Busler, Ph.D. is a public policy analyst and a Professor of Finance at Stockton University where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in Finance and Economics. He has written Op-ed columns in major newspapers for more than 35 years.