Thursday, January 9, 2014

50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty

This week is the 50th commemoration of America's War on Poverty. The question, of course, is 'Did it work?'

If there is anything Americans like more than conflict, its resolution to conflict. This 'war' has no resolution, so there apparently can be no 'victory' in such a war, so on the one hand the answer can said to be 'no'.

Of course Americans like progress and those of us who don't have blinders on can clearly point to progress...

In 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty, the poverty rate in the country was 19 percent. In ten years it reached 11.2 percent and has not been below 15.2 percent (where it is now) in most years since then. The poverty rate in 1959 fell from 22 percent to half of that - 11 percent - in 1973.

Poverty today is being fought with an array of different weapons, TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs), Medicaid, Medicare, the Earned Income Tax Credit, are all tools used to keep families out of poverty. In fact, Demos, the liberal think tank, estimates that between the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, Medicaid and other programs kept 40 million Americans out of poverty in the worst recession in our country's history. Through expanded Social Security and Medicare, the poverty rate among elderly Americans has gone from 35 percent in 1959 to 9 percent in 2012.

Supports in education, from Head Start to student loans, are designed to keep millions of young people out of poverty.

So with these and other arguably successful programs why does poverty still exist?

Education deficits, single parent families with too many children, parents unable or unwilling to work, and a deep core of institutionalized poverty, embedded for two or three generations frustrate all of the good intent of government programs.

I would say, along with one other writer, that for all of our efforts, we've only fought an adequately funded war on poverty for a decade. We need adequate resources devoted to a real war. Further we need for progressives to adequately stand up for the successes of the War on Poverty and the Great Society. Neither has worked perfectly, but they have combined key elements of what it takes to help families that want to make it, out of poverty. We are now in an era when staggering inequality is the primary reason for most poverty in the U.S. And it is inequality that can be defeated through education...

According to the Economic Policy Institute, in 1979 and 2007, the increase in inequality was the single most important factor in their analysis, increasing poverty by 5.5 percentage points.  The shift to single parent families added 1.4 point to poverty over those years, but educational upgrading reduced it by almost twice that amount.

The enemy to the eradication of poverty is conservatives willingness to preserve their advantage at the expense of the poor. It is the delusion of those falling out of the middle class that those below them are pulling them down and progressives who refuse to stand up for what they know works...

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