Equality of opportunities, not outcomes

WSJ contributor Jason Riley questions the success of the Great Society programs

Fifty years on, the lesson from land- mark legislation designed to remove economic disparities based on race in America, according to Jason Riley, “is that simply transferring cash benefits and services to the poor does not make people more prosperous.”

Riley, a longtime contributor the Wall Street Journal and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute was the inaugural speaker for a newly revived quarterly speakers’ series sponsored by Center of the American Experiment, this year revolving around how liberal policies hurt the middle class, the poor and minorities.

“I think blacks ultimately have to help themselves,” he told an overflow audience of more than 300 people at the downtown Minneapolis Hilton Hotel. “They must develop the same attitudes and habits and behaviors that other groups developed in order to rise in America. To the extent that a government policy, however well-intentioned, interferes with that essential self-development, it does more harm than good.”

Riley, frequently seen on Fox News, is the author of the book, Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make it Harder for Blacks to Succeed.

He argues that highly acclaimed programs like the Civil Rights Act and Affirmative Action are over-rated, receiving acclaim for improving trends that were already in ascent before the laws were enacted. In the mean time, open-ended welfare benefits suppressed the work ethic, while soft-on-crime laws and the disintegration of the two-parent family led to more violent neighborhoods, which in turn chased away job-creating businesses.

After $20 trillion in inflation-adjusted government dollars spent on anti-poverty programs, the official poverty rate is higher than the mid-60s, Riley says. Incarceration rates are higher and black unemployment has been twice as high as white unemployment for five decades.

The fact is, according to Riley, black poverty in the U.S. fell by 40 percent- age points between 1940 and 1960. “At best, the Great Society continued a trend already in place,” he said. “No Great Society program has ever come close to matching what blacks were doing on their own before the government decided to step in and help.”

The racial preferences within Affirmative Action also get credit for improvements that were already in the works, he said, citing that the percentage of black white collar workers had quadrupled between 1930-1970. “No affirmative Action policy has ever come close to matching what blacks were doing on their own, prior to the implementation of that program.”

What’s more, the black underclass has lost ground in the era of Affirmative Ac- tion. In the first three decades, according to Riley, the poorest 20 percent of blacks saw their incomes fall at almost double the rate of comparable whites.

Getting more pointed, Riley said, “We don’t even talk about crime anymore. We talk about black incarceration rates as if the two are completely unrelated… We have mobs of people all over this country pretending that there is an epidemic of cops shooting blacks and the media has played right along. This is nonsense.”

Police are involved in about two percent of black shooting deaths, Riley said, adding that police officers are six times as likely to be shot by someone black. Roughly 7,000 blacks are murdered each year, 90 percent of them by blacks. “There’s your epidemic. There’s your tragedy,” he says.