My Perspective on the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty – posted 3/15/2014 and published in the Concord Monitor on 3/20/2014
This article appeared in the Concord Monitor on March 20, 2014 under the title “Pointed in the Right Direction”.
2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty. Since January, there have been many commemorations and retrospective pieces written about this anniversary. 50 years offers a good time to step back and take stock of both progress and shortcomings.
When President Johnson launched the War on Poverty in 1964, it was a multi-pronged attack that featured a broad array of new government programs. These included such lasting accomplishments as Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, Job Corps, Community Action Program, Community Health Centers and Legal Services. President Johnson also greatly strengthened Social Security, extending benefits for retirees, widows and the disabled.
Johnson tried to reduce poverty by creating new services. Many of the services sought to promote opportunity and success in the job market. This approach ran contrary to most influential analyzes of poverty which emphasized the role of unemployment and the solution of job creation. While the new programs did not end poverty, I think it is hard to deny their great value. Collectively, they did contribute to a lessening of the economic divide between rich and poor.
Over the last 50 years, poverty and poverty-related conditions have declined. This is in large part due to the safety net. While there are many ways to look at this, I would cite the rise in average income among the poorest fifth of Americans, the drop in infant mortality, and the disappearance of severe child malnutrition as significant gains. Whatever its other virtues, private enterprise was unable to accomplish these outcomes. The War on Poverty government programs did.
America in the sleepy Eisenhower fifties hid poverty off the beaten track. While it sometimes may not seem that way, we have come a long way from a time when poverty was invisible and not talked about.
However, I would admit that the War on Poverty has been only a partial success.
The War on Poverty did mean an acknowledgement of harsh realities and it prevented things from getting worse. It did not banish poverty. I would never deny the distance we have to go as a society to eliminate poverty but I think it is an error to fail to acknowledge the positives.
It is not surprising that the 50th anniversary would evoke a wide range of responses across the political spectrum. On the political Right, I saw these words used to characterize the War on Poverty: “ineffective”, “failure”, and “catastrophic”.
On March 3rd, the Majority Staff of the Congressional House Budget Committee, presenting the view of Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan, released a very long document entitled “The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later”. The document attempted to review a large number of federal programs.
Among other programs reviewed, the piece included a section on federally funded Legal Services. Because during my legal career, I had worked in Legal Services for 25 years, I looked forward to seeing the critical evaluation.
I would have to describe the Budget Committee piece as an ideological document. It appears to be agenda-driven with the goal to debunk the War on Poverty. Rather than any evaluation of the substantive work of Legal Services, the relevant section focused on two examples of fraud where administrators stole money from their Legal Services’ programs. It then went on to criticize the Legal Services Corporation for poor grant oversight.
Fair is not the first word that comes to mind to describe this evaluation. Over the 40 plus years of Legal Services, Legal Aid programs have represented hundreds of thousands if not millions of poor people on their individual problems whether it was eviction defense, a public benefit denial, a consumer scam or protection from domestic violence abuse. Legal Aid advocates have won innumerable victories that directly resulted in tangible client benefit. Where was any mention of that?
How can it be that a document purporting to evaluate 50 years of the War on Poverty included no mention of the actual work of Legal Services? Evaluations like the Budget Committee report reflect the distance of the report’s writers from poor people and their actual experience. It would be generous to characterize reports of this nature as “academic”.
Poverty is tough to talk about because just the word itself has become a political football. There are no generally shared definitions of what poverty is. There is cynicism and defeatism about ever eliminating poverty. To his credit, President Johnson sought to evoke an empathetic understanding of the poor.
While the War on Poverty has been represented as a Democratic Party endeavor, that is not entirely true. President Richard Nixon also invested heavily in the War on Poverty. Nixon played a leading role in establishing the Food Stamp program, the Women”s, Infant and Children (WIC) food program, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). He also proposed a guaranteed national income that failed in the Senate after passing the House. I suppose this is forgotten history but it does show that the War on Poverty had more bi-partisan origins than people now would expect.
The War on Poverty pointed us as a society in the right direction. Without the goal of reducing and eliminating poverty , we will never get there. I submit it is unlikely we will make progress on eliminating poverty if that is not seen as an explicit societal goal.
The initial thrust of the War on Poverty did not last long because of the political reaction it engendered. Still, the programs I mentioned at the outset have become part of the accepted fabric of our society. Facile dismissals that ignore these programs lack balance. Since the Reagan era we have witnessed a sales job by the Hard Right on how government programs don’t work. While no program is beyond criticism, the sales job actually flies in the face of the programs I mentioned which are, in fact, very successful.
We currently lack politicians with the will, ability, drive and vision to move a new War on Poverty agenda forward. President Obama’s emphasis on economic inequality is timely but it appears he lacks the political strength to push this boulder uphill. We need poverty abolitionists who can make that happen.