“This administration today here and now declares unconditional war on poverty in America.”
–President Lyndon Baines Johnson, 1964 State of the Union Address.
The parking lot was packed as usual by mid-afternoon at the Hubert H. Humphrey Comprehensive Health Center in South Los Angeles. It’s been that way practically every day since it opened in 1976 to serve a poor clientele, 50 percent of which, until recently, had no health insurance. The facility is one of the many outgrowths nationwide of the War On Poverty (WOP) launched by President Lyndon Johnson whose above words 50 years ago called on the United States to embark on a noble crusade to lift more people out of poverty and place them on a more secure footing toward the middle class.
Johnson took on this role as a “drum major” for social prosperity when he lauded the national crusade as the best way to “…pursue [poverty] wherever it exists—in city slums and small towns, in sharecropper shacks or migrant-worker camps, in Indian reservations, in the boom towns and in the depressed areas.” It was a noble objective. Johnson’s Great Society was, in effect, the practical application of domestic policy measures that would have been implemented during President John F. Kennedy’s second term in office had he lived.
The War On Poverty called for big spending in a time of big ideas (e.g. civil rights legislation, landing a man on the moon), but somewhere between the Vietnam War, “Reaganomics” and today’s rapid financial slide of the middle class, the grandiose plans have come under intense scrutiny from the U.S. Supreme Court to the halls of Congress and some state legislatures who posit that the WOP has been an abject failure. Many of the original outreach programs were eliminated long ago.
In addressing the merits of the WOP, advocates point to the more tangible benefits of assistance such as the 1964 Food Stamp Act and the Child Nutrition Act of 1966. These pieces of legislation directed rapid food assistance to the poor with the results arriving almost immediately: The percentage of low-income children receiving reduced-price lunches at school jumped from six percent in 1969 to 27 percent by the Reagan Administration in 1981 when the program had ultimately reached 10 percent of the U.S. population.
First cut: White seniors
“Title I” was passed in 1965 to provide federal money to schools and districts with a high proportion of poor students. Thus, more of these children had earlier access to school and could start the day with a nutritious meal. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare (Health and Human Services today) offered an extensive federal loan program for college students and as well to foster increased social security payments for impoverished White senior citizens. The WOP succeeded most dramatically for White citizens (65 years and older) whose rate of poverty fell from nearly 50 percent of in 1967 to 20 percent by the early 1980s.
In 1960, 35 percent of older Americans lived below the poverty level; that figure had dropped to just nine percent by 2012. American poverty rates, in general, have fallen by one-third since 1968 and, through 2012, roughly 27 million people have been lifted out of poverty with help from social programs. Head Start, for instance, has resulted in higher high school graduation rates and increased college attendance numbers.
The WOP, though, has resulted the past 50 years as a “mixed bag” of success and failure. [While it would appear that a stronger “safety net” along with factors like rising education levels, higher employment for women, smaller families have helped push poverty down, an increase in single-parent households, growing income inequality and a shrinking labor market for low-skilled workers have apparently pushed poverty up.] The Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure revealed in 2012 that the WOP had kept 41 million people—including nine million children—out of poverty. If government benefits were excluded, they contend, today’s poverty rate would be 29 percent instead of the present 15 percent.
Aid for Families with Dependent Children (renamed in 1996 as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) remains one of the most contested and controversial aspects of the WOP. The plan was to provide cash assistance to a growing population of poor single mothers; shortly after President Richard Nixon left office, 30 percent of America’s single moms were participating in the program. The early 1980s saw several recessions and a steep decline in the America’s manufacturing industry, accompanied by stagnant wages, weakening unions and increased poverty among single-parent households. As it became more expensive to counter these discouraging economic trends, politicians abandoned efforts to continue the WOP; Reagan-era budget cuts saw funds for public housing and rent subsidies get slashed by 50 percent and food assistance to local governments were reduced by as much as 60 percent to mark a turning point in federal assistance to poor people.
“What we have found in this country, and maybe we’re more aware of it now, is one problem that we’ve had, even in the best of times, and that is the people who are sleeping on the grates—the homeless you might say—by choice,” said President Ronald Reagan at the time.
By the 1990s, state budgets began to collapse for schools, libraries, hospitals and other public services as local governments were unable to stop the decline of urban areas—and the concentration of poverty there—resulting in the official poverty rate tabulated by the U.S. Census Bureau spiking up to 22 percent, considerably more than the [then] national average of 14 percent.
Five years after the government economists declared an end to the Great Recession, some 49 percent of American households are receiving support from one or more federal programs including 16 percent on food stamps, 27 percent (Medicaid), 16 percent (Social Security) and another 15 percent receiving Medicare benefits—all programs derived/expanded under the WOP. Researchers at the Columbia Population Center in 2011 said poverty rates would have risen by “five to six percentage points” between 2007-2012 without federal aid. They contend that an additional 15 million Americans would be on the poverty rolls today.
War On Poverty confronts Great Recession
The multiplication of low-wage jobs coinciding with widening income inequality has become a formidable obstacle to reducing poverty. This scenario may represent the “gap” that anti-poverty programs endeavored to change; the growing difficulty of the task, it is debated, has forced anti-poverty programs to cut services. In an economic system where good jobs and personal income are the primary source of security and well-being, the widening gap between rich and poor presents an increasing challenge for anti-poverty programs.
The New York Times reported last month, “Despite improved living standards, the poor have fallen further behind the middle class and the affluent in both income and consumption. The same global economic trends that have helped drive down the price of most goods also have limited the well-paying industrial jobs once available to a huge swath of working Americans. The cost of many services crucial to escaping poverty—including education, health care and child care—has soared.”
Today’s Earned Income Tax and Child Tax credits have roots in the WOP. Together, they reportedly have kept 10 million people out of poverty. As well, Medicare (along with the Children’s Health Insurance Program) have been expanded for an increased population of low-income children, parents and childless adults. Advocates of the WOP cite that in the past half-century, the average income of the poorest one-fifth of American citizens has risen by more than 75 percent.
In the mid-1960s—before food stamps were made available to poor households—American childhood malnutrition and related diseases in poor areas resembled Third World nations. By the late 1970s, there was a dramatic improvement and, while poverty remained, severe malnutrition and health-related conditions were becoming more rare. The food stamp program, according to a 2004 study conducted by Columbia University, was the single largest contributing factor in this progress. The study also revealed that the federal “safety net” has lowered poverty by a minimum of 14 percent thereby keeping some 40 million out of poverty. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in 2014 found that the WOP has resulted in the share of adults completing high school rising from 56 percent in 1964 to 88 percent by 2012. During the same period, the share of women working outside the home rose from 42 percent to 64 percent.
“If the War On Poverty means anything, it is a statement that we must look, not just to the poor—but to the whole cloth too—and even to the loom,” said R. Sargent Shriver, director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, in 1966. Shriver and vice president Humphrey essentially “carried the ball” for anti-poverty programs, with the former conducting the day-to-day operations of Head Start, Job Corps, VISTA, national community action programs and legal services for the poor. “The whole fabric of our society must be rewoven, and the patterns we must weave are patterns of justice, opportunity, dignity and mutual respect,” Shriver said then.
Despite 50 years of federal and state assistance to poor people, U.S. poverty is high compared to other wealthy nations because our “safety net” does little to lift Americans out of poverty. Some 49.7 million Americans were considered “poor” in 2012, including 13 million children. Today, some 16 million Americans (about 3.5 million children) live below half the poverty line in representing what is commonly called the “working poor.”
Impediment to personal liberty?
Critics of the WOP say government programs impede progress against poverty by influencing individual behavior (e.g. reducing work ethic). Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, House Budget Committee chairman and former vice -presidential nominee, said in March that government programs have not done enough to lower the nation’s poverty line. His report stated that federal nutrition and education programs have failed to adequately address the country’s poverty rate, which it states has fallen just 2.3 percentage points—from 17.3 percent to 15 percent—since 1967.
In documenting a “multitude of overlapping” federal programs on food aid, housing and education—with a reported $799 billion spent yearly on a total of 92 separate federal anti-poverty measures—the egalitarian ideals have amounted to nothing more than wasteful spending. The report found that Medicaid—expanded under the new Affordable Care Act—has had “little effect on patients’ health” and “increases use of the emergency room inappropriately.” Head Start “does not improve student outcomes,” and is “vulnerable to fraud.” Ryan’s report also said food stamps administered by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have only a “modest effect on poverty” and “discourages work” among female-headed households and married men.
Ryan’s office said the report was meant to “challenge critics” of reform to defend the status quo, or “…to go beyond mere intentions and focus on results.” More than 47 million Americans receive food stamps at a cost of $80 billion annually.
The latest debate transcends old political lines. “Take a look at who is sending that message,” explained Rep. Maxine Waters (D-43rd District). “Only conservative Republicans are saying this. Today’s GOP–particularly the far right wing–does not want to address the growing wealth gap. This is much different from the days of Everett Dirksen who would work ‘across the isle’ to promote policies beneficial for all Americans. There’s a mean-spirited, right wing element in Congress today that does not promote equal opportunity for the quality of life for everyone.”
Some may point to Miami, Fla. where, among the national population that has reportedly received anywhere between $15 trillion to a high of $20 trillion (the later figure according to a Heritage Foundation study) in anti-poverty funds for half a century, the poorest residents there today are living on as little as $11 per day. Bloomberg News reported this month that economic inequality in Miami is broader than in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and mirrors Mexico City’s level of poverty. “In my home state, nearly one in five Floridians live in poverty…isn’t it time to declare big government’s war on poverty a failure?,” asked Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) earlier this year.
The Reagan Administration in the early 1980s capitalized politically on the common depiction of the “welfare queen” and family who, it was explained to exasperated tax-payers, did nothing more with their day but chew and digest life while relying on the postman to deliver on the first and 15th day of the month their welfare check. There was merit to this condemnation of some inner-city families who had long resigned themselves to living off taxpayers’ largess without applying themselves to the task of daily work. The “truly needy” at the time would receive butter, cheese and other sundries necessary to stave off hunger while being implored to pull themselves “up from their bootstraps” and become more productive citizens.
So-called “statist” redistribution programs to help the poor have led to a multigenerational dependency and shrinking opportunities and incentives for low-skilled persons to enter the workforce, increase their skills and move up the income ladder.
Conservatives often point to the WOP as the epitome of the failed welfare state. The half-century of government programs, they say, have failed to eradicate poverty in the richest nation in the history of mankind. The WOP, it is believed, encouraged the “welfare queen” as well as a disintegrating family structure, disaffected youth and racial polarization. Conversely, the mythical aspects of the “Protestant Work Ethic” and “rugged individualism” may mask the reality of human suffering that still exists in a free-market economy.
Ryan pointed to welfare programs that were often poorly conceived and included incentives that led recipients to “life choices” that ultimately eroded some of their ability to forge more independent lives.
Lack of work ethic in inner city?
To the degree that the WOP was waged to ensure that more Americans had the resources to meet the most basic needs of their lives—even if it required a massive increase in the “welfare state”—the WOP was a resounding success. To the degree that the WOP should have led U.S. companies to pay their workers adequate wages and thereby prompt sufficient demand to ensure full employment, the WOP failed considerably.
Ryan said this spring that the WOP has resulted in “…a tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working, and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work.”
Across town from the Humphrey Center, the War On Poverty remains a “lightning rod” for discussion and influences many viewpoints spanning the political spectrum, including those of a newcomer running for County office:
“It’s been my family’s mission to fight the causes of poverty and win,” said Bobby Shriver, among the candidates to replace Zev Yaroslavsky on the L.A. Board of Supervisors. “My parents were warriors in that battle as founders of the Job Corps, Head Start, Peace Corps and Special Olympics…all of them efforts to address the causes of poverty and to treat all people with dignity. When it comes to fighting poverty, my mom and dad never gave up and neither will I.”