Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared a "war on poverty," the consequence of which was a slew of government programs aimed at improving the lives of struggling Americans. It has become fashionable among political conservatives to declare the war a lost cause, but a more accurate description would be that it has been a partial victory.
Critics are correct to the extent that poverty remains rampant in America, but they tend to overlook the most basic battlefield statistics. As a recent Council of Economic Advisers report notes, poverty has declined by one-third from 25.8 percent of the population to 16 percent during those five decades. That's significant.
Medicaid, Social Security, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka food stamps), Unemployment Insurance and the Earned Income Tax Credit, all have played a roll in helping pull families out of poverty. They've proven particularly helpful for lifting families from what the government defines as "deep poverty," with parents earning 50 percent below the poverty line. Without those programs, the council estimates, the percentage of Americans living in abject misery would be 19.2 percent instead of the estimated 5.3 percent.
Some efforts have obviously been more successful than others. Certain programs had the unintended effect of discouraging families from remaining intact or lacked a sufficient incentive for work. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan once observed, the consequence of providing benefits under what was then called Aid to Families with Dependent Children only to households with an absentee father was the breakup of families — with especially devastating consequences in African-American homes.
But that was long ago. Today, anti-poverty programs are more careful to reward and encourage work — through the Earned Income Tax Credit, for example. Most SNAP recipients hold a job of some type, and those who receive unemployment benefits have a work history. Social Security benefits go to people who have contributed to the fund and qualify for payment because they've retired, lost a spouse or are physically unable to hold a job.
It's particularly difficult to argue that the war has failed senior citizens when more than one-third lived in poverty 50 years ago compared to less than one out of 10 today. Much of that can be traced to the expansion of Social Security in the 1960s and 1970s.
The problem confronting the nation today is not as much whether children will go hungry tomorrow — although that, too, still happens — but whether they will be able to qualify for a job that can allow them, and their children, a decent life. In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, one that lacks many of the unskilled jobs of a generation ago, a quality education has become more important than ever.
On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida gave a speech offering what he envisions as a GOP alternative to what he described as the well-intended but "failed" war on poverty. He would eliminate much of the federal safety-net programs and instead transfer money to states to spend as they see fit. And while that flexibility may sound appealing, it doesn't take a political scientist to recognize what would happen next — the belt would be tightened, and conservative-leaning states would drop benefits. Many have taken similar action by denying federally-funded benefits to their citizenry under the Medicaid expansion that was part of the Affordable Care Act.
What America ought to be investing in right now is education and helping poor children overcome their circumstances. Increasing access to Head Start and other pre-K programs is a start, but we also must invest in teacher training and development, revive the nation's lowest performing public schools and make sure students have access to broadband and other digital technology on which future jobs will surely depend. A relevant national minimum wage that allows people to support themselves and their families wouldn't hurt either.
With the approach of the 2014 mid-term election, Democrats in Washington have begun focusing their message on income inequality and the increased concentration of America's wealth in the hands of a relatively small percentage of the public. Fair enough. It's a troubling trend, but the answer is not for government to write a check to anyone. The battle line in the war on poverty is in opportunity, the proverbial hand up, not the handout. If there's been a failure, it's in not sufficiently protecting the American dream — in making sure a growing economy can benefit everyone and not just those who have never known poverty.
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