A War on the Poor

Before we dismiss the war on poverty as a failure, 
maybe we should actually fight it


"After 50 years, isn't it time to declare big government's war on poverty a failure?"
— U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

It was 50 years ago last week that President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty. To commemorate the ocassion, Rubio, a man who very much wishes to be president, took to the Senate room named for Johnson and labeled his war a failure.

This is a common refrain, echoed by right-wing politicians and conservative media types, evidenced by the fact that, well, poor people are still around: "While this war may have been launched with the best of intentions, it's clear we're now engaged in a battle of attrition that has left more Americans in poverty than at any other point in our nation's history," U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Tallahassee, told Time.

It's also, objectively speaking, horseshit. A half-century on, the war on poverty is, in fact, a rousing if incomplete success. Between 1967 and 2012, the country's poverty rate declined dramatically, from 26 percent to 16 percent, once you factor in government assistance, according to a recent study from economists at Columbia University. Since 1968, the war on poverty has helped an average of 27 million Americans escape poverty every single year, according to the White House Council of Economic Advisers. Without the increase in government aid begat by Johnson's Great Society — Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, etc. — poverty would have increased to as high as 31 percent. In 2012, food stamps alone — the program Rubio, Southerland and their fellow Republicans are right now gung-ho to gut — lifted 4 million Americans out of poverty.

This isn't to say it's time to declare victory. Far from it: Unemployment, especially in the wake of the Great Recession, is still way too high. Quality jobs are still way too scarce. Opportunity is still way too unequal.

You've heard the numbers: Since the 1970s, lower- and middle-class income has stagnated, while the rich have consolidated wealth at a level not seen since the Roaring Twenties. Since 1979, the top 1 percent of earners have seen their household incomes rise 201 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, while middle-class earners have seen their incomes grow by only 40 percent.

The divide is further exacerbated by race. According to data provided by the Florida Minority Community Reinvestment Commission, the racial wealth gap — that is, the disparity between the wealth of whites and that of minorities — is the largest it's been in 30 years. In 2010 in Duval County, the median net worth of white households was $79,622; for black households, $1,795. Statewide, the data are little better: $77,300 for white households, $2,759 for black households.

These problems are systemic and institutional. Rubio's answers are, for the most part, shopworn pabulum. He wants to encourage marriage (but not gay marriage, which doesn't count), and to repackage federal anti-poverty money into block grants that states can do with as they please. More interesting, he also wants to replace the earned income tax credit (EITC) with direct wage subsidies. Wage subsidies themselves aren't a terrible idea; using them to replace the EITC, however, is problematic because the EITC is aimed at poor families with children. Without substantial funding hikes, Rubio's proposal would probably increase child poverty.

But at least he admits there's a problem. Tallahassee's obsequiousness toward big business is such that, even while he's pledging $100 million in taxpayer-funded advertising for the state's multibillion-dollar tourism industry — itself a leading cause of our low-wage service economy — Gov. Rick Scott says that a proposal to raise Florida's minimum wage makes him "cringe." Meanwhile, House Speaker Will Weatherford refuses to expand the state's Medicaid program to cover nearly 1 million of Florida's uninsured poor, even though the federal government will foot nearly the entire bill. (Weatherford complains that Medicaid is a "flawed health care delivery system," which is rich coming from a guy who, as a legislator with a taxpayer-subsidized health care plan, pays less than $30 a month to cover his entire family.) And Rubio, the same guy who's trying to rebrand himself as an anti-poverty conservative, just voted to slash unemployment benefits for 88,000 Floridians, including more than 6,300 in Northeast Florida. Within a year, another quarter-million of Florida's long-term unemployed will lose their benefits, too.

In Florida, we're not waging a war on poverty. We're waging a war on the poor.

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If we haven’t been fighting a war on poverty then what have we been spending all of our money on?

To say that the war on poverty is incomplete is simply avoiding an answer to this question. Bush could have said the same thing about Iraq: the war in Iraq was just incomplete. It needed more money, more troops, more patriotism.

Whether the war in Iraq or the war on poverty is complete or incomplete avoids the real issue of cost. How much do these lofty goals cost “we the people”?

During the past five decades, the government has spent trillions of dollars to “lift” people out of poverty. According to government records, it spent $475 billion in 2012 for income security (SSI, unemployment, etc.); compared to only $9 billion in 1964. Similarly it spent $544 billion for Medicare and $250 billion for Medicaid in 2012, compared to $100 million for both programs in 1964.

All of this (among other expenditures) for a 4% reduction in poverty? Couldn’t we just provide a “living wage” to the 20-30 million Americans living in poverty?

Moreover, what if we didn’t spend the trillion dollars or so each year to help the poor? Would poverty really go up to 31%? Is that a fact? If so, tell me when to buy a few bitcoins so I can make some easy money. But if I made that argument (of decreasing the money spent on the war on poverty - even if just a couple billion), I would be called a lunatic or a crazy Libertarian (which I am – though likely minus the crazy).

Let’s just forget the issue of cost and instead bring up issues of racial and class warfare. Let’s just call the war on poverty incomplete and keep doing what we are doing; anything else is just “horseshit.”

Wednesday, January 15, 2014|Report this