Do government programs actually solve any problems?

Phyllis Hunsinger

About 2,200 federal assistance programs were available to the American public in 2013, according to Government Book Talk. It appears that was the year the publication stopped counting because programs weren’t enumerated in recent publications.

It’s likely safe to assume many programs have since been added. The General Services Administration has a database of programs and publishes an annual guide titled “Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance.” Programs are provided primarily
under the departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Interior and Justice.

A myriad of problems exist in any society, but can government programs solve them? Consider the so-called war on poverty launched in the 1960s. Despite billions spent on numerous programs in the ensuing years, the poverty rate in the U.S. remains between 11 percent and 15 percent of the population. The amount of taxpayer dollars spent to reduce poverty continues to increase with no measurable improvement. It appears the programs are by design either self-defeating or self-perpetuating. Legislation enacting new welfare assistance programs passes with seemingly no integration with existing programs, leading to duplication of services and an expansion of eligible participants without addressing root causes.

Poverty is defined as not having enough possessions or income to cover basic needs — sometimes so extreme a person lacks food, clothing and shelter. 

According to the Federal Safety Net: “Young people can virtually assure that they and their families will avoid poverty if they follow three elementary rules for success: (1) complete at least a high school education, (2) work full time, (3) wait until age 21 and get married before having a baby. Based on an analysis of Census data, people who followed all three rules had only a 2 percent chance of being in poverty and a 72 percent chance of joining the middle class.” If these rules reduce poverty, it seems government programs could be designed to promote those behaviors. 

William J. Wilson, a professor and sociologist at Harvard University, reported research that indicated recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) preferred work to welfare and would accept jobs that didn’t result in slipping deeper into poverty. The design of the programs penalizes recipients trying to secure entry level employment instead of giving recipients a boost as they enter the work force. This discourages work to such an extent many recipients in the last two generations have never worked.

Other programs inhibit having a father in the home because aid is only given if the mother is a single parent — the more children in the household, the more aid. Ian Rowe wrote for the Fordham Institute in 2020: “The power of the two-parent home is not a myth,” a statement he supported with data. Why not design welfare programs to encourage family units?

Politicians evoke the same tired phrases each election about the need for more money to fight poverty and inequity, yet welfare programs never change despite data showing they could be more effective. Is it possible politicians are less interested in solving the problem of poverty and more interested in using the issue for campaign rhetoric?