Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared a war on poverty. Appalled by the way too many Americans lived, he empowered federal workers to develop and implement programs that created jobs, health care, housing and legal assistance. Some of the funds were given to states, and some were given to cities. In any case, President Johnson was committed to closing income gaps, and up to a point he was successful. He had to overcome two sets of obstacles. One was Republican resistance; the other was competing needs, especially, in 1968, the war in Vietnam. Johnson poignantly explained his choices. He said he had to give up “the woman he loved–the Great Society, to get involved in that bitch of a war.”
Why go back down memory lane? President Obama, too, is interested in issues of poverty and inequality. To be sure, these are not issues he focused on during his first term as President. Indeed, I’ve described his actions as late and great. He has spent this past month in speeches and gatherings that speak to poverty and ways to eliminate it. Like Johnson, he is likely to face a hostile Congress and budget constraints to get these programs. Still in highlighting just a few areas, —Los Angeles, San Antonio, Philadelphia, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and Southeastern Kentucky. The President picked a good mix of urban and rural areas, as well as population diversity. Were I choosing, however, I’d add the District of Columbia, where President Obama could throw a stone to find the poorest area in Ward 8, and one of the richest areas in Ward 3. On this matter, though, I’ll not be a distractor. It’s about time the poor got some attention.
Tea Party Republicans, with waning power, are still insisting that any new program must be offset by cuts in existing programs. Their cuts in food stamps, for example, can be eliminated if the President and Democrats are willing to give something else. The President’s new poverty program must be matched, they say, by other cuts. These folks have effectively tied President Obama’s hands behind his back. Only Congress can loosen the restrictions of these ropes.
I often wonder whether Republicans represent any poor people, because their attacks on things like food stamps hurt the people that keep voting for them. You’d never know by the votes they take, never know by their resistance to higher wages, never know by the ways they block programs designed to help the poor.
There is a movement, though, to increase the minimum wage. At the federal level there are proposals to raise the wage by as much as $10 an hour. Some cities and states have already raised the wage. This is the long-term result of the Occupy Movement that failed to articulate specific goals, and raised consciousness about the one percent. Now, people are considering tax breaks on the wealthy and insisting that Congress look at ways that the poor are disadvantaged compared to the rich.
Some Republicans operate with an amazing arrogance, using the Bible to make their points against public assistance and food stamps. At least two have cherry picked the Bible, using that Thessalonians verse that says, “If you do not work, you cannot eat.” The Bible also talks about feeding the hungry, but these seem to be parts of the Bible that have escaped their notice.
Bible or not, the economic recovery is moving more slowly that anyone would like. The stock market has had tremendous gains, but the unemployment rate has dropped slowly for the overall population, and even slower for African Americans. The status of African Americans is hardly mentioned as economic analysts gloat about poverty, and some members of Congress have been downright derisive toward those who are jobless. These are the same people who voted down the President’s American Jobs Act I 2011.
President Obama is moving in the right direction by paying attention to poverty. Let’s hope Congress allows him to move from conversation to implementation.
Julianne Malveaux is a D.C.-based economist and writer and president emerita of Bennett College for Women.
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