January 8 2014

Unhappy 50th Anniversary to the War on Poverty!

Charlotte Hays

This year is a milestone that Republicans should use as an opportunity to put forward genuine remedies for poverty. Yes, 2014 is the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a “war on poverty.” And you thought the Vietnam War was a disaster!

This is a war we have lost every bit as decisively as the Vietnam War, and the consequences of this loss are more dire and far-reaching. Lives and families have been ruined by Lyndon Johnson's intentions. 

The failure of the war on poverty should be uppermost in our minds as we debate current economic issues such as inequality—President Obama’s latest rhetorical stick with which to beat Republicans on the head—and the extension of unemployment benefits. The war on poverty is relevant to both issues.

The editors of National Review dissect the war on poverty in today’s must-read piece. As the editors point out, the first thing we need to recognize about the war on poverty is that it didn’t alleviate poverty:

The poverty rate had been dropping since the end of World War II. That progress came to a halt as President Johnson’s expensive and expansive vision began to be implemented in earnest, which coincided with the tapering of the postwar boom.

By the 1970s, the poverty rate was headed upward. It declined a bit during the Reagan years, crested and receded again in the 1990s, and resumed its melancholy ascent around the turn of the century.

Although the war on poverty didn’t reduce poverty, it remained immensely popular: 

The war on poverty has been conducted partly in earnest and partly self-servingly. No doubt programs such as Head Start were launched with a great deal of idealism, but as their ineffectiveness became apparent, it was not idealism that sustained them but political self-interest.

Poverty programs may not help poor people very much, but such programs do wonders for the Democrats. This year’s anniversary affords the GOP a chance to offer an alternative. National Review’s editors counsel:

It is not enough for conservatives to understand and advertise the failure of the war on poverty. The issue is real and it is urgent, but it will not be ameliorated through the usual progressive program of consolidation and command.

Poverty in the United States is an economic issue, to be sure, especially as it relates to economic growth, the most important driver of employment and wages. But it is also a cultural issue. Well-off U.S. households are made up overwhelmingly of married couples in which one or both spouses are engaged in full-time employment. Poor households are the opposite. Poor households have on average 0.42 full-time workers in them, and 68 percent of their members are entirely unemployed; only 17 percent of them consist of married couples.

Is it idealism or political self-interest that animates the current Democratic push for an extension of unemployment benefits? Sorry, but I am going with the latter. As it happens, I know a thing or two about unemployment insurance. I wrote about my personal experience with unemployment benefits.  You can read my blog here.

Unemployment benefits give peace of mind to the newly-unemployed. But, if extended indefinitely, the benefits provide a cushion that allows people to be picky about taking the next opportunity. I talk about the unrealistic nature of my job hunting in the post. I also talk about the moment when my job search switched gears and became more in earnest:  

But then something dawned on me: the benefits were scheduled to stop soon. Guess what? I immediately found a job. Like within a few weeks. It wasn't one I particularly wanted-it was editing, and some of the material I edited I didn't like. The job had little potential to confer stardom. But there was no alternative: the benefits were stopping. A funny thing happened, though it was a job I would probably not have taken for any other reason than necessity: I gained a skill, editing, which I had not before possessed. It turned out that it was one of the most valuable jobs I ever held. It was not only fun at times, but it laid the foundation for subsequent employment. Thank heavens the benefits ran out (I speak only for myself).

I am an ambitious person and have even been called hard-working. Work is essential to me, both financially and spiritually. But I would never in a million years have pursued one of the most meaningful jobs of my working life if those benefits had not been-painfully and frighteningly-on the verge of ending. 

I wrote this blog post in 2010!

Can you believe it? That's how long we have been periodically extending unemployment benefits! The U.S. economy has been bad for so long that this has become a perennial debate in Congress. That we are having this debate is an indictment of President Obama’s economic policies. Republicans shouldn’t let him get away with using the issue. The failure of the war on poverty gives them an opportunity to talk about government programs in a new way.

Will they take this opportunity?

Jury’s out, folks.

 

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