Monday, January 06, 2014

What Works Better-- America's War On Poverty Or The GOP's War On Poor People?


Conservatives always ignore history and always want to reargue their issues. Today we're hearing the same tired, discredited arguments for why the rich should be the focus of government largesse and why helping the poor is a waste of money. When you hear today's crop of ignorant teabaggers and erudite think tank loons arguing against the minimum wage, they are trying the same nonsense they tried-- and failed with-- for decades. Today the far right Club for Growth, predictably, demanded that all the senators they own vote against extending unemployment benefits. Overturning FDR's New Deal will always be at the tip-top of the Republican policy agenda. It's why working people who haven't been brainwashed by Fox and Hate Talk Radio never trust them-- despite their best efforts to divide working families through a policy of racism, homophobia, misogyny and xenophobia.

Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of the War of Poverty and in the Daily Beast this morning, Michael Tomasky lashed out against the arguments that intellectual feather-weights Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Paul Ryan (R-WI) have been making about how the whole project was a dismal failure. It wasn't.
Our problem is when conservatives like Rubio talk gibberish: “Isn’t it time to declare big government’s war on poverty a failure?” No, it isn’t. It’s high time to say the war on poverty was a success. A wild success, indeed, by nearly every meaningful measure. But no one thinks so, and a big part of the reason is that most Democrats are afraid to say so. They’d damn well better start. If we’re really going to be raising the minimum wage and tackling inequality, someone needs to be willing to say to the American people that these kinds of approaches get results.

You may have seen the big Times piece Sunday that looked back over the half-century war on poverty, kicked off by Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 State of the Union address. The article noted that in terms of health and nutrition and numerous other factors, the poor in the United States are immeasurably less immiserated today than they were then. But it did lead by saying the overall poverty rate in all that time has dropped only from 19 to 15 percent, suggesting to the casual reader that all these billions for five decades haven’t accomplished much.

What’s wrong with thinking is that we have not, of course, been fighting any kind of serious war on poverty for five decades. We fought it with truly adequate funding for about one decade. Less, even. Then the backlash started, and by 1981, Ronald Reagan’s government was fighting a war on the war on poverty. The fate of many anti-poverty programs has ebbed and flowed ever since.

But at the beginning, in the ’60s, those programs were fully funded, or close. And what happened? According to Joseph Califano, who worked in the Johnson White House, “the portion of Americans living below the poverty line dropped from 22.2 percent to 12.6 percent, the most dramatic decline over such a brief period in this century.” That’s a staggering 43 percent reduction. In six years.

The war on poverty then lost steam in the 1970s. Some of that was Johnson’s fault-- money that might have been spent fighting poverty was diverted to bombing and shooting the Vietnamese. Some of it was the fault of liberal rhetoric. Johnson and others would speak of eradicating poverty, and of course eradicating poverty is impossible, and when it didn’t happen, conservatives were able to say, “See?” (Democrats ought to have learned their lesson along these lines; Barack Obama made a similar mistake in 2009, vowing that the stimulus would keep the jobless rate under 8.5 percent.) And so the public started electing politicians who told them poverty couldn’t be cured by government but only by pulling up one’s bootstraps and friending Jesus more aggressively.

But even for its shortcomings, the Great Society and the war on poverty did absolutely amazing things. I’d like my fellow West Virginia natives to imagine our capital-poor state without the billions the Appalachian Regional Commission has spent since 1965 on roads, local economic development, community health clinics, and numerous other projects. The Great Society brought federal billions to schools, made college possible for millions of kids from modest means, educated innumerable doctors, and so much more. And it’s always worth remembering that the official poverty rate, now 15 percent, overstates the true number because it doesn’t take into account certain policies that don’t offer direct subsidies to poor people, notably the Earned Income Tax Credit, a once bipartisan policy that went to 27.5 million families in 2010 and encourages work and lifts many millions of families above the poverty line.

The political problem is that Americans don’t know about or focus on these successes. They just know that we tried, and poverty still exists. Thus has the “war” frame ended up being extremely handy for conservatives, who will always be able to point to the existence of poor people and therefore to make the claim that the whole thing has been a failure. That is why Rubio can say what he says in his new video and have people who don’t know any better nodding their heads in agreement. And it’s why Ryan can prattle on as he does about government and dependency. I can assure you that when both unveil their specific policy platforms later this year, they’ll consist of a mix of things that a) already exist in some form; b) have been tried and proved tricky to implement; c) sound good in theory but will be woefully underfunded; or d) have been studied to death, with findings suggesting their impact will be minimal.

It will be Democrats’ job to make sure Rubio and Ryan can’t get away with their ideological sleight of hand. They will undoubtedly speak solemnly, for example, of teenage pregnancy and child-bearing, confident that most Americans don’t know that the incidence of these behaviors, even in the African-American community, has decreased dramatically since 1990. If we are entering a new phase of fighting a war on inequality, Americans need to know some facts about the last war that firmly support the view that the effort and resources have done far more good than harm. The Democrats just have to be willing-- and proud-- to say it and say it and say it.
Eloise Reyes, the grassroots progressive running for the Democratic nomination in the Inland Empire (CA-31), is one of those candidates willing to explain why she's proud to say it and say it and say it-- which is, in great part, why Blue America has endorsed her. (The DCCC is backing an empty suit and loser named Pete Aguilar, who already lost to Gary Miller is this deep blue district in 2012, even though Aguilar has gone on record in favor of reducing earned Social Security benefits to retired seniors.) This morning, we asked Eloise, about the role of War on Poverty programs in San Bernardino.
The War on Poverty is about so much more than reducing the number of Americans who live below a particular economic threshold. It is about breaking cycles of injustice and empowering Americans to lift themselves up out of social and economic disparity. When we invest in programs and initiatives that combat poverty, we show our commitment to creating opportunity for all Americans, tackling racial discrimination and providing a safety net for the most vulnerable members of our society, like the elderly and the disabled.

And history has shown that when the war on poverty has been waged with sufficient funding and political muscle, it has been remarkably effective and has had real and meaningful effects on the lives of millions of Americans. Even so, we continue to see House Republicans march in lockstep with their predecessors in Congress, who have fought tooth and nail for decades against efforts to alleviate poverty and address its root causes. California’s 31st Congressional District is just one community where this battle rages.

Here in the Inland Empire, one in five children lives below the poverty line. Yet our current Member of Congress, far-right conservative Gary Miller, is more committed to fighting a war on the War on Poverty than actually improving the lives of the people he represents. Even amongst the field of Democratic candidates running for this House seat, we see Pete Aguilar supporting proposals like the Chained CPI, which would dramatically chip away at the benefits of Social Security recipients. Clearly, the first step in continuing to combat poverty-- both in CA-31 and nationally-- is electing the right Democrats to office.
Let's get rid of right-wing garbage like Miller and make sure Steve Israel doesn't sneak in "Democratic" versions of the same anti-working family corrupt elitists like Pete Aguilar. While Israel is hiring tutors to teach Aguilar Spanish, so he can try to relate to the community, you can contribute to Eloise's grassroots campaign here.

UPDATE: At Least One House Candidate In Hawai'i Remembers How Much Good The War On Poverty Did For His State

Stanley Chang is the progressive in a crowded field of Democrats hoping to replace New Dem Colleen Hanabusa in the first CD. The majority-Asian-American district is deep blue (D+18) and encompasses Honolulu and the southern area of Oahu. Several of his opponents-- particularly Donna Mercado Kim and Mufi Hannemann are so far to the right that they are as bad as any Republican. This afternoon, Chang told us that the war on poverty isn't something from the past but an ongoing commitment Americans make to society.
"Simply put, we are losing the war on poverty because we've all but given up on fighting it.  In many cases, the Republicans in Congress are not just rooting for our failure, but are actually cutting ever larger holes in the social safety net that the poorest American families fall right through. Late last month, we saw Republicans cut unemployment benefits-- a nice holiday gift-- after a year that also saw cuts to food stamps and other important programs for millions of Americans. The failure of Republican governors to accept Medicaid expansion is a perfect example of this. The Medicaid Expansion program under Obamacare will allow poor Americans (mostly working single mothers and veterans, yes veterans) to go to the doctor instead of the Emergency Room, where costs skyrocket before being passed on to the rest of us.

"We know the math works: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I'm proud to join the fight in the war on poverty because I know that it is one we can start winning again, if we're willing to try."

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