Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, launched by President Lyndon Johnson. But don’t expect a golden anniversary party for the tired, poor, huddled masses.
Johnson’s initiatives passed beginning in 1964 and throughout his second term, and were aimed at the communities left out of policies that had created the widespread prosperity enjoyed by most Americans after the Great Depression—especially the rural poor and African Americans. It wasn’t long, however, before those programs came under attack. The next president, Richard Nixon, used resentment over expanded rights and anti-poverty legislation to wrench the votes of Southern whites away from the Democrats: Ronald Reagan began dismantling these programs in the 1980s. Since then the country has concerned itself more with policies that help businesses grow than with the plight of the least well off. It’s part of the reason we suffered through the Great Recession, and why poverty remains stuck at 15 percent.
President Barack Obama invoked this history in a speech at the Center for American Progress on December 4: “Together, we forged a New Deal, declared a War on Poverty in a great society. We built a ladder of opportunity to climb, and stretched out a safety net beneath so that if we fell, it wouldn’t be too far, and we could bounce back. And as a result, America built the largest middle class the world has ever known. And for the three decades after World War II, it was the engine of our prosperity.” He then warned that the unwinding of these policies has led to high inequality and a decrease in upward mobility. “I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: Making sure our economy works for every working American,” he told the crowd.
It wasn’t a speech to rouse, but a sedate, policy-oriented speech. But what does Obama plan to do in this time of record inequality? His laundry list of ideas were noble but timid retreads. Obama wants to raise the minimum wage, restructure the tax code, get more low-income students into college, and expand quality early education. Those aren’t new ideas. Obama didn’t specifically mention poverty, talking about the decline of the middle class instead, and a lack of upward mobility, though these can be seen as a different aspect of the same conversation about the gaping need in America. His failure to explicitly mention poverty could also be a political calculation. “Politicians and advocacy groups have been told by pollsters for years now that race and poverty are the third rails and not to talk about them, and that if you want to work on them, to work on them surreptitiously,” says Maya Wiley, the founder and president of the Center for Social Inclusion, which researches and promotes policies that will further racial equality. “I think that’s what we’re seeing now.”
Other Democrats also focus on the decline of the middle-class and low-wage work, from Senator Elizabeth Warren agitating for a $22 per hour minimum wage to Nancy Pelosi, Democratic leader in the House. Pelosi has proposed a “Women’s Economic Agenda” that includes raising the minimum wage, providing quality childcare, and providing paid family leave. She’s doesn’t present it as anti-poverty legislation, but female-headed households are more likely to be poor, and these changes would help poor women the most. What’s interesting about these policy initiatives is that they include the poor in a picture of the overall economy and how it’s failing: All too often, the poor are sectioned off and talked about in terms of their own moral shortcomings or in the moral obligations the better-off have to them, not seen as people who could be middle class but aren’t.
The way these approaches might fall short is that they don’t allow lawmakers to address the structural inequalities that cause poverty. In sheer numbers, most poor people are white, but poverty disproportionately affects people of color. Sixty-two percent of black children live in areas with at least 20 percent poverty, including almost half of middle-income black families, where only four percent of whites do. Almost no white children live in neighborhoods with 30 percent poverty rates or higher. “We’re constantly making race neutral decisions that are continuing to create barriers to upward mobility for communities of color without being conscious of it,” Wiley says. “We have to pay attention to all those structural arrangements and how we’re located within them.” The Congressional Black Caucus’s alternative budget would concentrate on these high-need communities.
While it’s important to acknowledge the role structural racism has played in creating intergenerational poverty, it’s also important not to portray it as a particular and peculiar problem for blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and Asians. Look for that move from Representative Paul Ryan. He’s the only Republican talking about the poor, and wants to claim the mantle of Jack Kemp, the former New York Congressman and Housing and Urban Development Secretary who crafted a conservative approach to poverty in the 1980s and 1990s, during widespread economic growth. He was chosen to be Bob Dole’s running mate in 1996. Yet Ryan’s doing it in a very particular way. He’s toured inner-city neighborhoods with Robert Woodson, the conservative head of Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which provides support to community and faith-based organizations that work in poor communities. Woodson is taking Ryan to urban neighborhoods where programs are helping ex-offenders and former drug users turn their lives around.
No doubt, these narratives will be powerful, and faith-based organizations can play an important role in helping individuals. But even George W. Bush gave federal money to these programs. And Kemp believed in the power of the tax code and other federal programs to give breaks to the working poor. Ryan, the chair of the budget committee, regularly proclaims that the safety net should be a safety net, not a hammock, and his budgets would dramatically cut anti-poverty programs that even conservatives have supported in the past to help the working poor, like the Earned Income Tax Credit. “I think he understands very little about what Jack Kemp actually stood for,” says Bruce Bartlett, a historian of supply-side economics who once worked for Kemp. “I think he has a superficial notion, but at an absolute minimum Jack was absolutely sincere in his desire to help the poor. He never supported slashing budgets. He never cared about balanced budgets at all. He would be appalled by Paul Ryan’s budget.”
So why is Ryan touring these particular neighborhoods? It could be that he believes the faith-based programs actually help people move out of poverty better than the government does, and he is honoring his Catholic faith in doing so. That’s the case he made in 2012: “[T]he preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenants of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life, help people get out of poverty out onto life of independence,” he told the Christian Broadcasting Network.
It could also be that he sees a political opening. His 2012 top-of-the-ticket running mate, Mitt Romney, took a huge beating over his comments that 47 percent of Americans were “dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims.” When a conservative Republican tours poor neighborhoods, it makes news, and removes some of the coldness people felt when Romney spoke.
But it’s also possible that Ryan still wants people to think about poverty as an isolated phenomenon in inner-cities: the people he speaks to will be those whom the average Republican voter does not identify with. The GOP has worked since Nixon to portray the recipients of government benefits as entitled, inner-city African Americans who don’t work and have made mistakes in their lives, and who could turn their lives around with the right motivation. Ryan’s tour could be working to extend that image into the future.
Whatever proposals Democrats or Republicans come up with, none of them are likely to get through Congress. Republicans, including Ryan, don’t want to do anything but cut taxes and shrink government: the Democrats are busy fighting cuts to long-established, well-functioning anti-poverty programs like food stamps, now officially know as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. One way to break the logjam in 2014 would be if the huge numbers of people living in poverty, near poverty, and the struggling middle-class, could come together to agitate for better treatment and more help. We’re already seeing pieces of this with the growing low-wage worker movement, and the fight for an increased minimum wage. Another growing group is the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, which is working to mobilize poor men and women on specific activism campaigns around the country.
For some, this activism is a welcome relief. The forces that have led to the rise in poverty we see today are at least 40 years old, but no one has gotten mad until now. “I’m always shocked at the use of the word of ‘entitled,’ because I’m shocked people don’t get entitled,” says Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a senior policy analyst at CLASP, a DC-based nonprofit seeking to improve the lives of low-income people. “We’re hearing stories of health care now, with the Affordable Care Act, and people are going to the doctor for first time in 25 years,” she says. “How are they not outraged? I think it’s shocking how much we’ve come to accept this is the way things work.”