A War on the Poor

“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.