BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Dependency Agenda’: We Fought Poverty — and Poverty Won

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'The Dependency Agenda': We Fought Poverty -- and Poverty Won

Now here’s an everything-that-is-old-is-new-again-idea: Encounter Books in New York City, a conservative books publisher, has revived the broadside or pamphlet in its Broadside Series. Here’s what they say about this new type of short-form publication:

Uniting an 18th-century sense of political urgency and rhetorical wit (think ‘The Federalist Papers’, ‘Common Sense’) with 21st-century technology and channels of distribution, Encounter Broadsides offer indispensable ammunition for intelligent debate on the critical issues of our time. Written with passion by some of our most authoritative authors, Encounter Broadsides make the case for liberty and the institutions of democratic capitalism at a time when they are under siege from the resurgence of collectivist sentiment. Read them in a sitting and come away knowing the best we can hope for and the worst we must fear.

Kevin D. Williamson’s “The Dependency Agenda” (Encounter Books, Broadside No. 28, 48 pages, $5.99) is an attack on the War on Poverty instituted by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s, and the subsequent entitlement programs of Medicare and Medicaid. 
Williamson says Johnson, perhaps the most wily and devious politician ever to grace Washington (full disclosure: I voted for him as vice president in 1960 and president in 1964) instituted his “Great Society” to do one thing and one thing only: maximize the number of Americans dependent upon the government. He says the welfare state was never meant to eliminate privation, which was comparatively minimal in the prosperous 1960s; it was created to keep Democrats in power.

Each year, the United States spends $65,000 per poor family to “fight poverty” – in a country in which the average family income is just under $50,000. Meanwhile, most of that money goes to middle-class and upper-middle-class families, and the current U.S. poverty rate is higher than it was before the government began spending trillions of dollars on antipoverty programs.

Williamson uncovers the hidden politics of the welfare state and documents the historical evidence that proves that Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” was designed to do one thing: maximize the number of Americans dependent upon the government. The welfare state was never meant to eliminate privation; it was created to keep Democrats in power.

Williamson gives us a history lesson. Most people have forgotten that Republicans in the Eisenhower administration and later, with the exception of Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, were the advocates of civil rights legislation. Johnson, coming from Texas, a former Confederate state, aligned himself with the segregationists of the South and border states, people like West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd; Virginia Sen. Harry Byrd (no relation); Arkansas Sen. William Fullbright, and Georgia Sen. Richard Russell. Johnson was strongly opposed as Senate Majority Leader to Eisenhower’s 1957 Civil Rights Act, fearful that its passage would tear his party apart. Thus with the help of the judiciary committee led by Senator James Eastland, the bill ended up being far weaker than it originally started, but it still became law and Johnson tried to give himself credit for its “passage”.

Knowing that the solidly Democratic South would be solid no longer once the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed — with LBJ’s full support — Williamson says LBJ decided to throw the “Negroes” a “bone”. The act and the subsequent 1965 Voting Rights Act ended the Democratic majority in the South, so the War on Poverty was the “bone” Johnson instituted.


This cynical view of Johnson doesn’t entirely jibe with Robert Caro’s view as portrayed in his latest installment on his multivolume biography of LBJ: “The Years of Lyndon Johnson: “The Passage of Power” In the just published book (Knopf), Caro on Pages 569 says the two acts “would not be Lyndon Johnson’s only victories in the fight for social justice. Other bills passed during his Administration made strides toward ending discrimination in public accommodations, in education, employment, even in private housing.”

It’s obvious that Williamson doesn’t agree with Caro, whom he cites in his “Broadside.” Provocative reading! I don’t agree with some of his conclusions–especially about Medicare — but read Williamson to understand the conservative and/or libertarian view of the welfare state’s expansion in the last half century.

About the author


Kevin D. Williamson is an editor at National Review, the author of the forthcoming “The End of Politics (And What Comes Next)”, and a columnist for The New Criterion. He began his journalism career at the Bombay-based Indian Express Newspaper Group and has worked as a reporter, columnist, and editor at a variety of newspapers. He directed the journalism program at the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA.


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