Good Government

Jonathan Small | October 14, 2015

Sharing the Heart: Part 3

Jonathan Small

This is the third part in a series reviewing Arthur Brooks' new book, "The Conservative Heart." – Editor

If anyone has ever made the best case for helping the vulnerable by learning from the past, it’s Dr. Arthur Brooks.

In chapter 2 of Dr. Brooks’ new book, The Conservative Heart, he plainly details that the War on Poverty has failed. Did you know that since the War on Poverty began, the poverty rate in the United States of America has only declined .2 percent? That’s right. According the U.S Census Bureau, in 1966 the poverty rate was 14.7 percent and in 2013—“at least $15 trillion later”—the rate has barely budged downward to 14.5 percent.

Still not convinced our approach needs to change for the sake of the most vulnerable among us? Dr. Brooks provides more evidence:

In 1951, just 3.8 percent of Americans received some sort of public aid; that’s about one out of every 25 people. By 2012, it was 32.3 percent. And while uptake of government help was increasing roughly ninefold, fewer and fewer Americans were working. The percentage of men in the workforce—either working or seeking work—has dropped from 81 percent in 1964 to just 62.7 percent today. We can also calculate the percentage of noninstitutionalized men aged 20-64 who are not working: That figure increased from 6 percent to 17 percent. Of all the working-age men who are neither in prison nor in the military, one in six are now idle.

Obviously these were not the results that were desired by those who meant to help the most vulnerable. Dr. Brooks reminds us that the chief political architect of the War on Poverty, President Lyndon B. Johnson, promised just the opposite when signing the Economic Opportunity Act in the Rose Garden:

We are not content to accept the endless growth of relief rolls or welfare rolls. We want to offer the forgotten fifth or our people opportunity and not doles. Our American answer to poverty is not to make the poor more secure in their poverty but to reach down and to help them lift themselves out of the ruts of poverty and move with the large majority along the high road of hope and prosperity.

With such good intentions, why has the War on Poverty failed? This point in the book may be the most important of them all. Dr. Brooks describes the fundamental flaw in the vast majority of government’s attempts. He describes the difference between things that are complicated and things that are complex: “Complicated problems are extremely difficult to understand, but they can be resolved with sufficient money and brainpower. And once you find the solution, the problem is permanently solved. … Complex problems are very different. They initially seem simpler to understand but can actually never be ‘solved’ once and for all.”

Dr. Brooks uses the example of building a jet engine (complicated) and a football game (complex) to illustrate the difference. Engineers can be trained and mechanics taught how to follow a certain set of instructions that will result in the exact same jet engine that will fly thousands of flights successfully. But the outcome of a football game is unpredictable. Certain practices and abilities mean a better chance of winning, but many things happen in a game and even the best computer models regularly fail at predicting the outcome. (There is no better example of this phenomenon than the University of Oklahoma’s shocking loss to Texas on Saturday.)

This difference is the fundamental reason why the War on Poverty failed. Its architects thought poverty in America was more like a jet engine than a football game. They maintained the conceit that with their big brains and a boatload of taxpayer money, they could smoothly categorize all the facets of poverty and design mechanistic programs to solve them. … This delusion is the central thread that links progressive policies from those of Woodrow Wilson to FDR, LBJ and all the way to the present day, with proposals from free community college to ‘Cash for Clunkers.’ Anyone who relies on government solutions to fundamentally complex social problems thinks that America is one big complicated problem, fixable through the scientific method.

But there is hope. America has significantly reduced poverty with little intervention from government before and encouraged work. Want to know when and how? Be sure to read chapter 2 of The Conservative Heart.

You won’t want to miss OCPA’s upcoming Liberty Gala on October 21st in Tulsa, where Arthur Brooks will be our keynote speaker. I look forward to seeing you there.

Jonathan Small President

Jonathan Small


Jonathan Small, C.P.A., serves as President and joined the staff in December of 2010. Previously, Jonathan served as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma Office of State Finance, as a fiscal policy analyst and research analyst for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and as director of government affairs for the Oklahoma Insurance Department. Small’s work includes co-authoring “Economics 101” with Dr. Arthur Laffer and Dr. Wayne Winegarden, and his policy expertise has been referenced by The Oklahoman, the Tulsa World, National Review, the L.A. Times, The Hill, the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post. His weekly column “Free Market Friday” is published by the Journal Record and syndicated in 27 markets. A recipient of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s prestigious Private Sector Member of the Year award, Small is nationally recognized for his work to promote free markets, limited government and innovative public policy reforms. Jonathan holds a B.A. in Accounting from the University of Central Oklahoma and is a Certified Public Accountant.

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