Until Republicans Stop Hating the Safety Net, Poverty Will Continue to Grow
January 8 marked the 50th Anniversary of the beginning of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. What usually happens with anniversaries of this magnitude—i.e. this past summer’s 50th anniversary of the March on Washington—is that it is recognized and discussed for a media minute before other issues reclaim the nation’s attention.
Susan Greenbaum, a professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida, pointed out that, “Congress is marking the anniversary by ending unemployment benefits for 1.3 million people who have been out of work for more than a year and cutting food stamps for 47 million people who rely on them to eat.” In a piece posted at the website of Al Jazeera America, Greenbaum’s article, titled “What war on poverty?,” noted that, “At 15 percent, the poverty rate is the same today as it was in 1965, a year after the so-called war began.”
Greenbaum recognized that from the outset the War on Poverty had many obstacles thrown in its way, not the least of which was Johnson’s wrongheaded pursuit of the Vietnam War and successor Richard Nixon’s launch of a War on Drugs as both stripped funding and urgency away from a War on Poverty.
The newly elected mayor of New York City, Bill DiBlasio, has pledged to do something about New York’s “tale of two cities.” The bankruptcy of Detroit has focused nationwide attention on that besieged city. Pope Francis has railed against economic inequality, which even provoked Newt Gingrich to say: “I think every Republican should embrace the Pope’s core critique that you do not want to live on a planet with billionaires and people who do not have any food. I think the Pope may, in fact, be starting a conversation at the exact moment the Republican Party itself needs to have that conversation.” How can the GOP claim to be interested in fighting poverty while it stymies any relief for the poor, including opposing raising the minimum wage and extending unemployment benefits?
The Heritage Foundation, the conservative movement’s premier think tank, has nothing new to offer. In a piece titled “How to Fight Poverty— and Win,” Heritage’s Jennifer Marshall argues that the War on Poverty “has not done justice to the poor” and regurgitates one of Heritage’s oft-repeated solutions, the restoration of marriage: “In addition to promoting work, any serious effort on behalf of those in need must get serious about restoring marriage, America’s most important inoculation against child poverty.”
Promoting work and marriage “would be a better battle plan for eradicating poverty in America than spending more money on failed programs,” the Foundation’s Senior Research Fellow Robert Rector wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “And it would help accomplish LBJ’s objective to ‘replace their despair with opportunity’.”
GOP Has No Agenda To Address Poverty
The truth is Republicans have no legislative agenda that would address poverty,” Josh Barro, the politics editor for Business Insider wrote in an article titled, “The Problem With The Republican Antipoverty Agenda Is That It Doesn’t Exist. Broadly there are two poverty problems…. One is a cyclical trend: The labor market has been slack for the last five years, leaving many people involuntarily unemployed and limiting workers’ ability to bargain for higher wages. The other is secular.
Labor’s share of national income is declining, wages are rising more slowly for low-skilled workers than high- skilled ones, and rises in family income at the bottom have come primarily through fiscal transfers, not wages.”
Republicans, according to Barro, do not have solutions for either problem: “On the cyclical side, Republicans favor a variety of policies that would make the unemployed and marginally employed worse off…cut government benefits to the poor…oppose extension of emergency Unemployment Insurance benefits…[support] cuts to food stamps, they want to repeal the Medicaid expansion.” The GOP wants the poor “to get jobs,” but has no worthwhile jobs creation plan. “The Republican theory seems to be that if the government ‘just got out of the way’ by cutting taxes, spending, and regulation, then the labor market would magically tighten, people would get jobs, and wages would rise. Empirical evidence for this…is lacking.”
According to Barro, “Republicans aren’t really having a policy discussion about poverty at all. They’re having a messaging discussion.”
Some Republicans are once again trying to breathe life into George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism agenda that did little to help the poor.
Some continue to hold onto the notion that philanthropic entities and private/public partnerships can help the poor. “Some want to pick up Jack Kemp’s ‘baton’ of talking about social mobility and free enterprise,” Barro wrote. “Social conservatives want to talk about the importance of families to alleviating poverty. Rand Paul wants to add more ‘anti-government broad sides’ to the message. “What all these Republican approaches have in common is that they aren’t policy ideas at all or they’re policies that won’t do anything about poverty.”
Susan Greenbaum pointed out that as long as the U.S. continues to be involved with “misguided foreign wars… along with a vastly expanded security apparatus, border control, unprecedented levels of incarceration and massive surveillance programs,” there is little chance that the fight against poverty will succeed.
Greenbaum envisions a War on Poverty that “take[s] aim at the political powerlessness of poor people and the insecure middle class, [and] reinvigorate[s] community activism and …strive[s] to eliminate the causes of poverty, not just its symptoms.”
Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative movements.