What the 50-Year War on Poverty Tells Us About Government

When five decades of spending hasn’t caused the statistics to change, it’s time for new ideas and new politics.

WASHINGTON, : US President Lyndon B. Johnson delivers a speech 28 July 1965 in the White House in Washington, D.C., about US policy in the Vietnam war, ordering more US troops to Vietnam. 29 June American troops have gone onto the offensive for the first time in Vietnam. In a joint operation with South Vietnamese forces they overran a network of trenches and tunnels in a Vietcong stronghold 30 miles east of Saigon. 
National Journal
Major Garrett
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Major Garrett
Jan. 7, 2014, 4:35 p.m.

Fifty years ago, Pres­id­ent Lyn­don John­son de­clared war on a vis­ible, in­defatig­able en­emy — poverty.

“Many Amer­ic­ans live on the out­skirts of hope,” John­son said in his State of the Uni­on ad­dress. “Some be­cause of their poverty, and some be­cause of their col­or, and all too many be­cause of both. Our task is to help re­place their des­pair with op­por­tun­ity. This ad­min­is­tra­tion today, here and now, de­clares un­con­di­tion­al war on poverty in Amer­ica. I urge this Con­gress and all Amer­ic­ans to join with me in that ef­fort.” (Listen here.)

Even dur­ing John­son’s pres­id­ency, crit­ics wondered if the “war” was purely rhet­or­ic­al. Those with an eye to the fu­ture wor­ried that John­son signed two fate­ful pieces of le­gis­la­tion in Au­gust of 1964 — the Eco­nom­ic Op­por­tun­ity Act that set the War on Poverty in mo­tion, and the Gulf of Tonkin Res­ol­u­tion that con­cret­ized Amer­ica’s costly com­mit­ment to Vi­et­nam.

In 1967, Dr. Mar­tin Luth­er King called the War on Poverty a fail­ure bur­ied un­der the boots, ar­til­lery, and heli­copter skids of Vi­et­nam.

“A few years ago, there was a shin­ing mo­ment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real prom­ise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty pro­gram,” King said in an April 4, 1967, speech at River­side Church in New York City. “There were ex­per­i­ments, hopes, new be­gin­nings. Then came the buildup in Vi­et­nam, and I watched the pro­gram broken and evis­cer­ated as if it were some idle polit­ic­al plaything of a so­ci­ety gone mad on war.”

The War on Poverty was barely an in­fant then. It’s 50 now. This epic so­ci­et­al struggle has con­sumed one-fifth of our re­pub­lic’s his­tory. It star­ted, as a mat­ter of policy, with the 1962 pub­lic­a­tion of the book The Oth­er Amer­ica, by Mi­chael Har­ring­ton. A 1963 re­view in The New York­er drove the top­ic in­to the up­per reaches of John F. Kennedy’s White House un­til the book landed in JFK’s hand. Poverty, along with civil rights, be­came new pri­or­it­ies for Kennedy. Fol­low­ing his as­sas­sin­a­tion, John­son car­ried both torches.

Since then, Amer­ica has spent $20.7 tril­lion on the War on Poverty — defined as means-tested gov­ern­ment as­sist­ance to the poor. This in­cludes hous­ing, food, Medi­caid, cash as­sist­ance, Head Start, and tax breaks like the Earned In­come Tax Cred­it (EITC). Roughly one in three Amer­ic­ans re­ceives some form of means-tested poverty as­sist­ance. And, yes, that’s tril­lion. With a “T.”

The stat­ist­ic comes from Robert Rect­or, a con­ser­vat­ive schol­ar at the Her­it­age Found­a­tion, who ar­gues the War on Poverty has not changed the stat­ist­ic­al level of poverty but has changed the cir­cum­stances of be­ing poor. By that, Rect­or means that the im­pov­er­ished in Amer­ica have creature com­forts — air con­di­tion­ing, TV, cable or satel­lite hook­ups, and com­puters — the poor in oth­er coun­tries can only dream of.

But Rect­or ar­gues the only way to judge the War on Poverty is by the stand­ard John­son set forth — to im­prove self-suf­fi­ciency.

“We are not con­tent to ac­cept the end­less growth of re­lief rolls or wel­fare rolls,” John­son said upon sign­ing the Eco­nom­ic Op­por­tun­ity Act. “We want to of­fer the for­got­ten fifth of our people op­por­tun­ity and not doles. Our Amer­ic­an an­swer to poverty is not to make the poor more se­cure in their poverty but to reach down and to help them lift them­selves out of the ruts of poverty and move with the large ma­jor­ity along the high road of hope and prosper­ity.”

Rect­or doesn’t see it.

“The ques­tion at the heart of this is can someone main­tain an in­come above poverty thresholds without gov­ern­ment aid,” Rect­or said. “By that stand­ard, ac­tu­ally there’s no pro­gress here. The ca­pa­city for self-sup­port has not im­proved at all.”

I ran all of this by Jared Bern­stein, Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden’s former top eco­nom­ist, who over­saw im­ple­ment­a­tion of Pres­id­ent Obama’s stim­u­lus law.

“That $20.7 tril­lion num­ber rep­res­ents around 6.6 per­cent of gross do­mest­ic product since 1964,” Bern­stein said. “It’s a typ­ic­al silly D.C. trick to give big num­bers out of con­text to scare people. One could do this with any oth­er part of the budget. How many tril­lions have we spent on de­fense since 1964? And yet there are still wars. And bad guys. Why doesn’t Rect­or com­plain about that?”

Bern­stein cites fig­ures that in­dic­ate the biggest driver of means-tested poverty spend­ing has been Medi­caid.

“Out­side of Medi­caid, spend­ing on low-in­come pro­grams was re­l­at­ively con­stant as share of GDP, ran­ging between 1.5-2 per­cent,” Bern­stein said. “The largest in­crease is from the Earned In­come Tax Cred­it, a pro-work wage sub­sidy that Ron­ald Re­agan loved.”

While it’s true Re­agan and many con­ser­vat­ives since have praised the Earned In­come Tax Cred­it, Re­agan also ad­voc­ated wel­fare re­form but was re­buffed. After win­ning con­trol of Con­gress in 1994, Re­pub­lic­ans pre­vailed upon Pres­id­ent Clin­ton to sign it in 1996. Lib­er­als at the time pre­dicted dev­ast­at­ing con­sequences and were wrong. Wel­fare rolls de­clined, states and the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment saved money, and priva­tion de­creased. Stat­ist­ic­ally, noth­ing has done more to re­duce the pre­val­ence of poverty among chil­dren and single moth­ers. Even dur­ing the Great Re­ces­sion, poverty for chil­dren and single moth­ers did not climb above pre-wel­fare-re­form levels.

The les­sons?

“Wel­fare re­form had very good tim­ing, as it co­in­cided with the tight­est labor mar­ket in dec­ades,” said Bern­stein, adding that an ex­pan­ded Earned In­come Tax Cred­it and high­er min­im­um wage aided those en­ter­ing the work­force. “Wel­fare re­form pushed a lot of people in­to the labor mar­ket, and many of them did re­l­at­ively well. If you tried it today, I ser­i­ously doubt it would turn out that way.”

Obama nev­er launched his own war on poverty, but his stim­u­lus law pumped $831 bil­lion in­to the eco­nomy — all of it de­fi­cit-fin­anced and de­signed to soften the blow of the Great Re­ces­sion.

I asked former Clin­ton Labor Sec­ret­ary Robert Reich about the War on Poverty, wel­fare re­form, and the Re­cov­ery Act. He de­scribed the War on Poverty’s biggest suc­cess as lift­ing seni­ors out of a life of in­come in­sec­ur­ity and fear. Like Bern­stein, he lauded the EITC. His most in­ter­est­ing com­ments con­cerned the Obama stim­u­lus.

“The Re­cov­ery Act was help­ful in avoid­ing what would have oth­er­wise been an­oth­er Great De­pres­sion,” Reich told me. “Iron­ic­ally, though, had we plunged in­to an­oth­er Great De­pres­sion, we prob­ably would have summoned the polit­ic­al will to trans­form our eco­nomy in ways that spread the be­ne­fits of sub­sequent growth far more widely (as we did in the New Deal). As it is, 95 per­cent of the eco­nom­ic gains since the Great Re­ces­sion ended in 2009 have gone to the richest 1 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans.”

I asked Reich what he meant about trans­form­ing our eco­nomy and spread­ing the be­ne­fits of fu­ture growth.

“The hard­ship wrought by the Great Re­ces­sion was far more lim­ited, fall­ing on a smal­ler sub­set of so­ci­ety,” Reich said. “As such, Obama didn’t have the broad-based polit­ic­al sup­port re­quired to cre­ate, for ex­ample, wage in­sur­ance, a ree­m­ploy­ment sys­tem, an ex­pan­ded Earned In­come Tax Cred­it, a min­im­um guar­an­teed in­come, or any oth­er pro­gram com­par­able in scope and ef­fect to the New Deal.”

All of which got me to think­ing about what Dr. King called for in a 1967 book called Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Com­munity? In it, King, like Reich, called for a guar­an­teed in­come, call­ing it the most ef­fi­cient meth­od of con­front­ing poverty.

Fifty years of spend­ing. Twenty tril­lion and count­ing. Not much stat­ist­ic­al change. The same ideas, mar­gin­al­ized as ever — even with Obama, Demo­crat­ic su­per­ma­jor­it­ies, and a Great Re­ces­sion.

Per­haps Reich’s deep­er point is worth pon­der­ing. The War on Poverty may have rendered priva­tion a sub­set is­sue for the na­tion, sheltered and pushed out to the mar­gins — nev­er dom­in­ant be­cause the safety net pre­vents a cata­clysm. In oth­er words, what stands in the way of King’s and Reich’s ideas is the very set of policies con­sidered then and now to be in­suf­fi­cient.

That means new ideas and new polit­ics are re­quired. Be­cause the old stuff is ra­dio­act­ive. The spend­ing con­tin­ues. The stat­ist­ics don’t change much. And 50 years is time for a ser­i­ous re­as­sess­ment. Every Amer­ic­an knows it. Time for us to stand next to the War on Poverty and look in the mir­ror.

The au­thor is Na­tion­al Journ­al Cor­res­pond­ent-at-Large and Chief White House Cor­res­pond­ent for CBS News. He is also a dis­tin­guished fel­low at the George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity School of Me­dia and Pub­lic Af­fairs.

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