The War on Poverty – LBJ at 50

Posted: January 9, 2014 in Uncategorized
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This is the season of rhetoric. It always is when anniversaries roll around, the markers of significant events, programs or initiatives. This year marks 50 years of LBJ’s announcement of the War of Poverty. Since his time efforts have not always been constant. Different administrations or legislatures either enhanced or diminished the effort.

Depending on your political persuasion you will describe the effort as either an abject failure or wild success. The truth is probably between those poles. And the truth would contain information about actual outcomes and strategies.

During that time, LBJ expanded what could be thought to have birthed during FDR’s efforts 1933-35. Major welfare reform took place during the tenure of Bill Clinton in 1996. Whatever else one might think about AFDC and other programs of support that have been highly debated over the years, several programs were birthed and remain an important part of our social safety net.

Early childhood programs like Head Start contributed a solution to reaching children during the critical early years – including food security for the youngest. The benefits of early childhood education are astounding in terms of investment in our children and their futures.

The combination of Social Security and Medicare can arguably be said to have eliminated poverty among senior citizens. For the most impoverished and disabled Medicaid, SSI and Food Stamps have meant the difference between living in a simple and safe way and being on the streets homeless, sick and dead. Even with these millions have been without health insurance and have experienced a lower life expectancy and reduced level of health for decades. All of these programs actually introduce spending into the economy for all these services in the public sector.

I now believe that provision for these basics contributes to the well-being of those most vulnerable and provides stability for our society as a whole. I am glad they have not been privatized. Can you imagine all those pensions being dependent on the market during the crash of 2007-2012? Can you imagine our seniors’ pensions shrinking? No, some things should not be privatized. And the market is not magical. In fact, the market is manipulated to the advantage of those with power because those same people control and buy influence to make it so.

Every era demands a different response for its own time and our time will be the same. Some things remain vital for social investment and contribute to vitality and stability in the public sector like education, health care and food security. In a time when the gap between the top 1% and the rest is growing exponentially it is immoral to cut taxes and create loopholes for the very wealthiest individuals and corporations (including ALL forms of income, including interest, capital gains and inheritance of estates) and cut the relatively minimal support for those at the bottom. We are willing to cut unemployment insurance in a job market where jobs are scarce but not address corporate welfare, the way ordinary citizens subsidize those with privilege and power. It’s sinful and shameful.

This is hardly big government compared to other Western democracies. It’s rather the rich and powerful controlling government and its elected officials to their scandalous benefit. That’s why during the past decade we have experienced maximum government bailouts for the wealthiest corporations but not a parallel effort to rescue millions of ordinary citizens from home foreclosures – even when those mortgages existed because of predatory and unethical lending practices in the first place.

No matter what mythologies are spun to the public, all this wealth that is vacuumed to the top doesn’t trickle down. It never has. It is hoarded while the middle class is gutted and lower class diminished even more. Without reserves all it takes is losing a job and then experiencing a major hospitalization to spin people into homelessness in short order. No job and no health insurance: the formula for disaster.

So, the war on poverty? It was worth waging. Was it entirely successful? No it wasn’t. Did it and does it need revision? Yes it does. Am I glad that fifty years ago (and thirty years before that) people cared enough about neighbor and the common good to actually try and make a difference? Yes I am. How will future generations look back and describe what we are willing to offer now? You’ll have to answer that one.

Comments
  1. Jim Coffman says:

    It seems to me that those who disparage such programs as Medicaid or food stamps usually do not seem to have close friends or relatives who desperately need these programs. I have no less than two close relatives who depend on Medicaid and other programs for the poorest of the poor. I have seen up close how afraid they can be when it comes to the end of the month and the food runs out. If these relatives of mine could choose, they would rather have a good job and be able to work 40 hours a week. That would be paradise for them, but they are not able to function like most of us. I am convinced that God prefers the poor over the rest of us who can support ourselves. If a detractor cannot see that, then he/she only reveals himself/herself as an arrogant person unable to see for their willing blindness.

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