Bice: U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson blames LBJ and Great Society for high percentage of out-of-wedlock births

Ron Johnson has represented Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate since 2010.
·5 min read

If U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson made a New Year's resolution to take a more measured approach when discussing public policy, it didn't take him long to break it.

Because the state's most polarizing politician is already back to offering his often wild and controversial take on things in 2022.

Johnson — who last year advised using mouthwash to combat COVID-19 and labeled Social Security a Ponzi scheme — has already roped God into his bizarre take on vaccines and again questioned the seriousness of last year's Capitol riot.

Now he's taking on a new topic: out-of-wedlock births.

And who's to blame for the rate of unmarried childbearing in the U.S.? Former President Lyndon Baines Johnson, the architect of the Great Society.

LBJ, of course, died nearly 50 years ago.

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"You know, we had a booming economy and people were lifting themselves out of poverty (in the 1960s). But then we instituted the Great Society programs," the second-term Wisconsin Republican told Lou Dobbs' on "The Great America Show" podcast last week.

The Great Society was an alphabet soup of social and antipoverty programs that Johnson, a Democrat, pushed through Congress in the 1960s. They included food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, federal educational funding, housing assistance and increased welfare spending.

But Johnson — the Wisconsin senator, not the former president — said the programs did little to eliminate poverty.

"But you know what skyrocketed? Out-of-wedlock birth rates," Johnson told Dobbs. "Back in the mid-'60s, probably on average, somewhere between 5% and 10% of births were out of wedlock. Now, nationally, we're over 40%."

Johnson, a devotee of libertarian writer Ayn Rand, wasn't done giving his take on the Great Society.

"Why aren't we looking at that and, gee, what caused that?" he said. "You know, could it be the Great Society programs that made it possible for, you know, single motherhood? That actually discouraged fathers from being present in the home, because you won't get the benefits then.

"You have to look at the cause and effect of these things, as opposed to just the intentions," he concluded.

'Correlation does not mean causation'

If it were only that simple.

Yes, 40% of all births were to unwed mothers in 2019, the latest year for which data is available, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The percentage is actually down slightly from its high in 2009 and has been largely flat for a decade.

And it's true that the percentage of children born out of wedlock is way up from 1960, shortly before the Great Society proposals were enacted. The figure was only 5% back then.

But just because there has been a rapid increase in unmarried births since LBJ launched his "war on poverty" doesn't mean the two are connected.

"Correlation does not mean causation," said Timothy Smeeding, professor of economics and public affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In other words, if two variables run parallel historically, it doesn't mean the one is causing the other.

A number of factors have contributed to the rise in out-of-wedlock births, he said.

There has been a rise in cohabitation, more permissive sexual mores, a decline in shotgun weddings, easier divorce laws, a drop in manufacturing jobs for males without college degrees and greater financial independence for women.

And that's just for starters.

The good thing, he said, is the decline in teenage pregnancies around the country. He said more and more parents are thinking about what they are doing and making better choices.

"Can you just attribute it to the Great Society programs?" Smeeding asked. "No."

One other mistake Johnson is making is conflating welfare with Johnson's Great Society. Some of the largest welfare programs, such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children, were created under then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s.

Douglas J. Besharov, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, said the Wisconsin senator may be focusing on the Great Society because Black families were not allowed on most federal welfare programs before the 1950s and 1960s.

Some southern states, for instance, didn't permit families to receive welfare benefits during picking season, effectively kicking Blacks off the welfare rolls.

In addition, Besharov said, a number of states enacted so-called "man-in-the-house" rules, which disqualified families from receiving welfare benefits if there was an adult male present in the household. He said this ended up discouraging female welfare recipients from seeking to get married.

So, in short, there may be some basis for what Johnson is saying.

But Besharov said, in truth, many other factors have driven up the percentage of out-of-wedlock births over the last 60 years, ranging from changing attitudes about marriage and sex to the misuse of contraceptives that lead to unplanned pregnancies.

"What I'm really trying to say to you is," he said, "there are loads of reasons."

As it turns out, this isn't exactly a new issue for Johnson.

In 1997, Johnson, who has assets worth between $16.5 million and $78.1 million, set up a trust for his three children, according to a 2016 story on Salon.com. Most of the document is boilerplate.

But under the section labeled "termination of benefits," Johnson and his wife said their children could be cut off from receiving their share of the trust if they engaged in criminal behavior, such as two unrelated felonies, or had "more than one child" without being married.

"As it reads, it seems that his kids are allowed one felony or one child out of wedlock, and after that, they're cut off," the Salon story said. "While there's no way to know how big Johnson's trust is, odds are that it's huge; he is a very wealthy man, after all."

Contact Daniel Bice at (414) 313-6684 or dbice@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielBice or on Facebook at fb.me/daniel.bice.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Sen. Ron Johnson blames LBJ for high rate of out-of-wedlock births