In this 50th anniversary year of the initiation of the War on
Poverty (War), there has been much discussion about the war and its
relative success and failure. There has been far too little attention
paid, however, to America's new poverty.
That is a poverty of
compassion, a poverty of commitment, and a poverty of creativity. Before
we examine the nature of those emerging dimensions of poverty, let's
reflect on the history of the War on Poverty.
On January 8, 1964, in his State of the Union address
President Lyndon Johnson declared "an unconditional war on poverty in
America." On January 25, 1988, a mere 24 years later, in his State of
the Union address,
President Ronald Reagan declared, "the Federal Government declared war on poverty, and poverty won."
Truth be told -- that war was never "unconditional." Nor has "poverty won."
Peter Edelman, Georgetown law professor and author of So Rich, So Poor: Why It's So Hard to End Poverty in America
"...we never fought an all-out war on poverty." Due to the Vietnam War
and other factors, the poverty war was not fully funded even in its
early years. John Wofford, one of the first staffers of the Office of
Economic Opportunity observes
that, "By '65-'66 the budget was cut back extremely. The financial
resources to deal with poverty on a broad-based scale were just not
Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly attributable to the fact that the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) resources
were originally allocated based upon poverty variables as opposed to
political ones. According to economist Martha Bailey, "EOA funds flowed
to poor and nonwhite areas, which empowered the poor and
African-Americans and angered entrenched interests."
line is that the War on Poverty was "conditional" from the start and
continues to be so to this date. In spite of this, the War has produced
substantial results. As with most wars, there have been victories and
defeats and the War has not ended poverty as we know it.
this, our first question is: Is the United States as a nation and we as a
people better off because of the War on Poverty? The answer to this is
an unequivocal yes regardless of whose data one is looking at.
In January the White House issued aProgress Report
citing accomplishments attributable to the war and identifying key
areas where work still needs to be done. The Report highlighted the fact
that "poverty has declined by more than one-third since 1967."
Based upon their analysis
of consumption data, economists Bruce Meyer, University and Chicago,
and James Sullivan, Notre Dame, discovered that the poverty rate went
from 32 percent in 1963 to 12 percent in 1979 and stood at 8 percent in
2010. A Columbia University study
found that without government benefits, the poverty rate would have gone up to 31 percent in 2012.
brings us to our second question: What is the biggest challenge
confronting us in the War on Poverty today? Our answer to that is also
unequivocal. It is "America's new poverty": a poverty of compassion, a
poverty of commitment, and a poverty of creativity.
A Poverty of Compassion
most troubling element of this new poverty is what we label the growing
"compassion gap" toward those in need between Democrats and
The Pew Research Center through its values survey
been tracking attitudes regarding support for the social safety net
every five years since 1987 using responses on three statements. The
size of the gap for those who responded affirmatively on those items in
1987 compared to 2012 is highlighted below.
- It's the government's responsibility to take care of people who can't take care of themselves: (1987 D-R Gap+17. 2012 Gap.+35.)
- The government should help more needy people even if it means going deeper in debt: (1987 Gap+25. 2012 Gap. +45.)
- The government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep: (1987 Gap+27. 2012 Gap +42.)
D-R gaps stayed relatively similar in size between 1987 and 2002 and
then started to expand. The D-R gap on "take care of people who can't
take care of themselves" and "help more people even if it means going
more in debt" went up by more than 10 points between the responses in
2007 as opposed to those in 2012.
A Poverty of Commitment
changes in attitudes of the electorate have been reflected in the tone
and tenor of the public debate over the past few years and in policy and
legislation which reduces resources being dedicated to help those in
need. The most recent examples of this are: the cuts to the food stamps
or Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP); and, the failure
to extend unemployment insurance benefits.
The cuts to food stamps
will be about $800 million per year or $8 billion over the next decade.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates they will impact about
The inability to pass an extension of
unemployment insurance means that 1.3 million workers have been without
jobless benefits since December 28. As Brad Plumer explains
in a Washington Post
loss of these benefits matter for a variety of reasons including: most
of the long term unemployed are having an extremely difficult time in
finding jobs; long term unemployment takes an extreme toll on people's
health and well being; and, these benefits are a key source of income
for millions of people.
A Poverty of Creativity
years ago, when the War on Poverty was announced and launched there was
no lack of creativity. Bold new programs that impacted poverty such
as: enhanced social security, job training programs, Medicare, Job
Corps, community action programs, and Head Start were designed and
developed at the stroke of a pen or a key on an Underwood typewriter.
Since then, the leitmotif has been to criticize programs, to highlight
problems, to make incremental changes, and to reduce or eliminate
funding rather than to find innovative ways to make things better.
Head Start as a case in point. There is an ongoing debate regarding
Heat Start's effectiveness. Much of the debate revolves around whether
gains in a young pre-school learner's ability are maintained into the
early grades (one through three).
Critics cite studies that
say there is little to no lasting effect. Defenders cite studies that
find a substantial continuing effect. This debate has constrained the
funding for and activities of Head Start rather than to find a way to
improve its performance and extend its impact.
This seems odd to us. If there is a proven program that works,
but its effects are not being sustained, wouldn't the logical,
business-like approach be to double down and to devote additional
resources at the appropriate intervention point(s) to ensure that
learning gains are maintained and enhanced? This ensures an appropriate
return on investment as opposed to unrewarded expenditures.
now our final question: In light of the New Poverty and where things
stand today, does it make sense to continue the War on Poverty? Our
answer to that is absolutely -- but with a caveat.
is that we need to find new and better ways to fight the War on Poverty
that transcend political and ideological boundaries. The response to
the current poverty context and conditions can not be simply to say stay
the course from the left or give the money to the states from the
We need to search for and find alternative paradigms and
programmatic solutions that are research and evidence based and
developed through a process of full and open inquiry. Fortunately, the
fiftieth year anniversary of this war has brought a renewed focus and
fresh thinking to this critical area.
For example, Peter Edelman
spells out "Ten Lessons for the Future" such as: "We can't attack
poverty without addressing the question of income..." Michael Gerson suggests
renaming the war and "new tactics" such as increasing worker skills and rewards and "encouraging the norm of marriage."
David Brooks recommends
a "developmental agenda to help poor children move from birth to middle class." Brooks also advocates
that the President create "an opportunity coalition" by bringing
bipartisan groups together to build "opportunity and social mobility
agendas." Writing for the National Catholic Reporter,
Michael Sean Winters calls upon the Catholic Church to take a lead in forging solutions
through its catholic conferences at the state levels and Catholic Charities directors at the dioceses levels.
dialogue and discussion has begun. We need to convert this intellectual
energy to non-partisan pragmatic plans and the emotional currency
required in order to continue to win the battles in the War on Poverty
and to vanquish the current poverty of compassion, commitment and
creativity. If we do not, America's new poverty will triumph and
America and Americans will be much the poorer for it.
I think it is a vast mistake to attempt to end poverty by encouraging class mobility. The system is simply not capable of sustaining large class movement, and as long as the middle class exists, so will the poorer class.ReplyDelete
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