- "Unless the grim chain [of unemployment and lack of education] can be broken, a second generation coming of age in Appalachia will fall into the same dismal life—a life that protects them from starvation but deprives them of self-respect and hope." So wrote LIFE Magazine in 1964, as the War on Poverty was declared and income inequality became one of society's chief ills. Unfortunately, this sentence, 50 years old, feels timeless.
- By many measures, life has improved dramatically in the United States since LBJ's presidency.As Annie Lowrey notes, "Infant mortality has dropped, college completion rates have soared, millions of women have entered the work force, malnutrition has all but disappeared. After all, when Mr. Johnson announced his campaign, parts of Appalachia lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. Many economists argue that the official poverty rate grossly understates the impact of government programs. The headline poverty rate counts only cash income, not the value of in-kind benefits like food stamps. A fuller accounting suggests the poverty rate has dropped to 16 percent today, from 26 percent in the late 1960s, economists say."
- Many of the measures we have used to track poverty in the past 50 years are also in serious need of an update.
- "So have we won the war on poverty? If it means that the lives of millions of Americans in poverty have improved under the Great Society programs, yes. But by no means have we attained Johnson's goal of 'curing' poverty. The poverty rates of certain demographic groups remain stagnant and racial disparities are as wide as ever."
- We've failed most at improving life for people in the Deep South, on Native American reservations and high-minority urban areas. Thirty-eight percent of black children were living in poverty in 2012. Only 12 percent of white children were.
- Making things worse, many barriers keep these low-income voters from the polls, meaning that they have little say in changing the policies that haven't been working for them.
- And, some of the policies that have helped them are starting to lose their potency. Affordable housing is becoming scarce, and food stamp benefits are shrinking. The recession hasn't helped either.
- President Obama says we still have much work to do. "In the richest nation on Earth, far too many children are still born into poverty. Far too few have a fair shot to escape it, and Americans of all races and backgrounds experience wages and incomes that aren't rising, making it harder to share in the opportunities a growing economy provides."
- Conservatives, like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, have rung in the anniversary with much condemnation of the legislative project, and say it's time for Americans to take income inequality in their own hands instead of relying on the government to fix the problem.
- But, as Timothy Noah points out, the government isn't the most at fault for our failures in improving economic conditions for all Americans. "Ironically, it isn’t the government that’s failed the poor so much as the market economy. After 1979 the poor, defined as the bottom 20 percent in income distribution, saw no increase in their share of the nation’s pre-tax income (while the middle class saw its share decline). In absolute terms, pre-tax income rose two-fifths for the bottom 20 percent, compared to nearly three-fifths for the top 20 percent. For the top one percent, it more than tripled. Rather than pay workers a living wage, corporations like Wal-Mart and McDonalds guide them to government assistance programs. The majority of food-stamp recipients–and more than 60 percent of food-stamp recipients with children–have jobs. They just don’t get paid enough to eat."
- Paul Krugman adds, "These days crime is way down, so is teenage pregnancy, and so on; society did not collapse. What collapsed instead is economic opportunity. If progress against poverty has been disappointing over the past half century, the reason is not the decline of the family but the rise of extreme inequality. We’re a much richer nation than we were in 1964, but little if any of that increased wealth has trickled down to workers in the bottom half of the income distribution."
- And, proclaiming the war a lost cause is probably the worst thing we could do. "By misrepresenting the War on Poverty as a failed effort, we may make ourselves feel better about these cuts, but the evidence shows that a smaller safety net will have negative repercussions even beyond those we might have imagined 50 years ago."
- In communities all across the country, Los Angeles, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, the war is still being fought ardently.
- What could we be doing today to continue making life better for low-income Americans? According to Dylan Matthews, "So many things! We could expand existing working anti-poverty programs like Social Security, the Earned Income Tax Credit, the child tax credit and food stamps, or at least reverse recent cuts to the latter. We could, similarly, cut taxes on the working poor, perhaps by exempting the first $10,000 or so of a worker's earnings from payroll taxes, or by cutting down on the extremely high effective marginal tax rates which poor Americans face. We could adopt a still more dramatic transfer regime, such as a basic income or low-income wage subsidies. We could be investing in education, such as by scaling up successful pre-K pilots such as the Perry or Abecedarian experiments, or by expanding high-performing charter schools and having traditional public schools adopt their approaches. We could raise the minimum wage, which all researchers find reduces poverty."
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