The Wall Street Journal ran dueling op-eds last week marking the 50th anniversary of Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”
In “Building on the Success of the War on Poverty,” Senator Cory Booker laments a lack of strategy in our approach to poverty:
Our national investment strategy is hardly a strategy at all. We are failing to invest in areas that not only produce great social returns but also reduce federal spending in the long run. Most glaring of all, we’ve got our priorities wrong: We are failing to maximize the productivity of our greatest natural resource—our people.
In America, tragically, social mobility is flat or, by some measures, actually declining: If you are born poor, you are likely to stay poor. This fact contradicts the very concept of America, deprives us of the genius of our people, damages our economy and threatens our way of life.
Against this backdrop, we are now having a debate over the War on Poverty, marking the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 speech. Listening to pundits and politicians over the past month, I’ve felt that too much of the discussion has been fueled by our partisan divide and has failed to unite us around actually addressing the pressing crisis of poverty.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m happy to hear more people talking about poverty. But we can’t fall prey to the debilitating simplicities of our seemingly binary political world.
Data, not stultifying political or ideological rhetoric, must drive our agenda. So let’s be clear on the facts. The federal government’s half-century of effort has slashed poverty among seniors from 35% in 1960 to 9% in 2011; it has brought so-called “deep poverty” (those living 50% below the poverty line) down to 5.3%; and it has cut overall poverty by a third, when you factor in tax credits and other payments, according to a recent report by the Council of Economic Advisers.
Continuing our fight against poverty—an endeavor that President Johnson rightly warned would be long and difficult—is fiscally responsible. If we are going to have a real conversation about it, we must abandon the rigid ideological view that, simply by virtue of being a government initiative, the Great Society was a failure.
We must dispense with the false choice between pursuing fiscal responsibility and funding programs to help the poor.
In contrast, Congressman Paul Ryan thinks we need “A New Direction in the War on Poverty,” in which he declares President Johnson’s program a failure and that for half a century we have been moving in the wrong direction.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. For years, politicians have pointed to the money they’ve spent or the programs they’ve created. But despite trillions of dollars in spending, 47 million Americans still live in poverty today. And the reason is simple: Poverty isn’t just a form of deprivation; it’s a form of isolation. Crime, drugs and broken families are dragging down millions of Americans. On every measure from education levels to marriage rates, poor families are drifting further away from the middle class.
And Washington is deepening the divide. Over the past 50 years, the federal government has created different programs to fix different problems, so there’s little or no coordination among them. And because these programs are means-tested—meaning that families become ineligible for them as they earn more—poor families effectively face very high marginal tax rates, in some cases over 80%. So the government actually discourages them from getting ahead.
Poverty isn’t a rare disease from which the rest of us are immune. It’s the worst strain of a widespread scourge: economic insecurity. That’s why concern for the poor isn’t a policy niche; it goes to the heart of the American experiment. What the poor really need is to be reintegrated into our communities. But Washington is walling them up in a massive quarantine.
On this less-than-golden anniversary, we should renew the fight. The federal government needs to take a comprehensive view of the problem. It needs to dump decades-old programs and give poor families more flexibility. It needs to let communities like Pulaski High develop their own solutions. And it needs to remember that the best anti-poverty program is economic growth.
On the one hand, I’m excited to see respectful dialogue on an important issue. Both leaders recognize that poverty is not simply a matter of deprivation (economic) but also a profound state of isolation and exclusion. On the other hand, to simply assert that because poverty is still a significant problem that it was President Johnson’s “war on poverty” that was a failure. If we pay close attention to poverty in this country – it did fall thanks to Johnson’s initiatives and social investment. Let us face what programs were initiated, the advances in civil rights, and the effect of the Vietnam war on our national investment. Let’s look at when poverty stopped falling and then started climbing when those investments were either slashed or abandoned (and started climbing under the very economic philosophy that Paul Ryan wants us to employ now). Food stamps is highly effective as an anti-poverty program and as an economic stimulation — yet he insists on introducing budgets that cut the program. Doing so literally, not figuratively, takes food out of the mouths of poor persons, often children.
Ryan is right to call for an honest conversation and a hard look at our choices. Creativity and flexibility are important tools in combating new social realities. However, I am perpetually perplexed at the dismissal of education and credentials. While calling for more flexibility for teachers, he looks down his nose at their training and education as if that is getting in the way — as if their degrees and certifications are the problem. It is a similar rhetoric to what is employed in the “government never creates jobs” story line we hear so frequently – as if teachers, firemen, policemen, mental health counselors, doctors and nurses at public hospitals, and social workers are not “real jobs” because they are in the public sector.
We desperately need to have an honest conversation about poverty and inequality. We desperately need a national conversation in which we are open and honest about the nation we strive to be and who we are as a people. That commitment to the least, to all Americans was at the heart of President Johnson’s vision – I for one hope we return to that conversation and align our strategic priorities accordingly. In Evangelium Gaudium, Pope Francis reminds us of a good starting point:
“We are not simply talking about ensuring nourishment or a ‘dignified sustenance’ for all people, but also their ‘general temporal welfare and prosperity.’ This means education, access to health care, and above all employment, for it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labour that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives.”(192)
Thanks for this, as always – bringing to our attention at least some attempt at a sane dialogue on this issue. I like that fact that we are getting beyond just arguing over the top-line poverty measure – I’d actually like to see both of them push this conversation further, especially with a clearer acknowledgement of how the War on Poverty was successful and still clearly unfinished. The key data points seem to be: we did great with seniors, and we established some safety net measures that dealt with the most abject poverty. If you look at that graph, basically the non-senior lines haven’t moved (or have increased) since 1970, with some increases in economic recessions (early 80’s, early 90’s) and decreases in economic expansions (late 90’s). What I’d like to see both Booker and Ryan (and CST!) engage is: why are those lines so stubborn? To be honest, the under-18 line is basically a function of the 18-64 line. It seems like Booker is going to say, we are not investing in our people (meaning education?), and Ryan is going to say, we are not promoting overall economic growth and the right tax incentive structure. While both are supposedly trying to overcome binaries, these sure look like the old binaries! And I think part of the reason they do this is that they are politicians, and politicians have to promote some kind of government action to “solve the problem.” I worry that, in reality, those graphs stop moving because of some combination of large-scale structural economic change (i.e. the demise of sold, secure middle-class jobs) and geographically-stubborn fortresses of poverty (i.e. rural Appalachia and the Deep South and decaying, older inner cities), both of which are hard for governments to address but would indicate why the needle doesn’t keep moving but gets stuck. Clearly, I don’t think the Ryan/Reagan solution “works” – that is, some kind of basically trickle-down theory. But there also needs to be a better account for why social programs since 1970 haven’t “worked” either, or at least have only continued to prevent the most abject poverty (which is still an achievement!), while not really moving the needle.
Thanks for engaging! Yes, I think part of why Booker focuses on children and education is because unless you do that…you will continue to have a problem with the 18-64 line indefinitely (or cyclically is perhaps better image) since if you don’t have that early and childhood attention, chances of avoiding adult poverty are quite slim.
Your point about the 70s – this is where I think we have to talk about a few very complicated things 1. the role of war and military industrial complex…money and attention moved AWAY from those earlier successful poverty initiatives and to fighting the war in Vietnam. (and part of this is apropos right after MLK day b/c it was his point) 2. stagnate wages in addition to the changing economic structures which you rightly note. People have stayed above the poverty line by increasing hours and women entering the workforce, largely to survive not advance the family situation 3. The success in elderly poverty is so precarious right now and has been for the last decade, I worry desperately that the accomplishments of Soc Sec and Medicare are in clear and present danger….
Great points – I’m going to pursue this because it helps me get clear on “the 70’s problem”, because a bunch of stuff happened, and I think it’s all connected. 1. Yes, the guns and butter problem happened – an additional/related factor was that if you look at federal spending in the 1950’s and 1960’s, you see that in many cases % of GDP is greater than now, because so much money was being spent on the military – but on domestic programs, not on sending soldiers to Vietnam. This spending was a kind of welfare program – at least, it had the effect of employing lots and lots of people at solid wages! No one thought government couldn’t create jobs, apparently! 2. did the changing economic structures create the stagnant wages? Why did wages stagnate? Was it union busting (Reagan and the air traffic controllers)? Was it changes in technology that started eliminating a lot of middle-skill-level jobs (so that you get stuck between low-skill fast food/retail and high-skill engineering – this is a real problem – my mother was a very high skill secretary – her shorthand and typing skills were amazing – but would anyone pay for those skills today?) 2a. Did women enter the workforce because of stagnant wages? Or did wages stagnate because (in part) women entered the workforce? I cringe saying this, and this is obviously not an argument against women in the workforce. But it does create a situation of more workers competing for jobs – I just want to get straight on the economic effects of this shift. 3. Agree that there is some precariousness there, but they vote and with boomers retiring, there are a lot of them, and a lot of them in the key swing states (Ohio, PA, Florida – you could easily argue that every election basically hangs on these, at least for the moment). Hard to see politically how anyone cuts these things. 4. One issue we haven’t raised but I would add is the one I feel like Shields and Brooks always bring up every time I watch: the trust in government problem. The fact is, it was in the 70’s, with Watergate, Vietnam, and white flight from crime-ridden cities that you got basically the Reagan Democrat backlash against government (and esp welfare programs for the poor)… and no one has really been able to turn the tide on this attitude. This may seem, remote from the problem of poverty, but the fact is that all the stuff in 50’s and 60’s proceeded along because the vast majority of people said that they trusted government, supported what leaders asked for, etc.