Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared “unconditional war on poverty in America” in his first State of the Union speech. As Johnson said, “The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it…. One thousand dollars invested in salvaging an unemployable youth today can return $40,000 or more in his lifetime.”
At that time, the poverty rate was 19 percent. Now it’s 15 percent. And that’s at the same time that the country is getting stingier, mostly with women and children. Not only did the GOP throw people off food stamps and other help through the sequester, but it also increased the inequity between wealthy and poor. Critics claim that the country has made no progress in Johnson’s “war.” Yet within six years, the rate dropped to 12.6 percent—until the government no longer considered it a priority.
Without the government programs such as food stamps, subsidized school lunches, and Medicaid, Columbia University experts figure that the rate would be 31 percent, almost one-third of the entire population. Even with government assistant for the poor, the top one percent of people in the U.S. more than doubled their share of the national income in that 50 years, creating an inequality not seen since 1928 when the top one percent got 23.9 percent of all pre-tax income and the bottom 90 percent shared 50.7 percent.
In this election year—and the precursor to the 2016 presidential campaign—GOP potential candidates are most likely going to use the subject of poverty on the podium. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) is also working to solve the problem through God—nothing more specific at this time. His idea of a war on poverty so far relies heavily on promoting volunteerism and encouraging work through existing federal programs. “Spiritual redemption: That’s what saves people,” Ryan said.
Ryan’s ideas revert back a couple of centuries to the “turkey basket” approach toward helping people when the poor had to count on charitable gestures, usually from a church. He mixes that philosophy with Adam Smith’s position that capitalism will bring a “universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) is trying to show that he is the first in the pack to address poverty, a much safer approach than the promotion of immigration reform that ended up dragging him down in the GOP. As usual, he attacked the issue by whining about the failures of the past. “After 50 years, isn’t it time to declare big government’s war on poverty a failure?” Rubio asked. He skipped over the facts that Republican presidents ruled the country during 60 percent of that time and that the reign of George W. Bush created a huge disaster with war expenses and tax cuts for the wealthy.
Thus far, Rubio, like Ryan, has no concrete ideas, but his agenda “would create an economy with more good-paying middle-class jobs and a government with less debt” as well as “repeal ObamaCare and … replace it with more affordable healthcare options.” He added, “[The agenda] would save and strengthen our retirement programs for future generations.” The GOP has been promising—and failing to provide—“good-paying middle-class jobs” since the 2010 election, and the party’s idea of strengthening retirement programs is to make seniors pay more for living and health care. Repealing health care is always the answer for GOP conservatives to make their mark.
Rubio is off to a bad start: yesterday he voted against moving the extension of unemployment benefits forward to a vote. His state of Florida also cuts off these benefits at an earlier stage, paying for only 16 weeks. Benefits are also lower than other states, and unemployed workers are out of work in Rubio’s state for the longest period in the nation. He is not alone in being a senator of a state in desperate need and still voting no: many GOP senators who also voted no, represent states with the highest unemployment rates in the United States.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is pitching a plan in Detroit to revitalize urban centers through “economic freedom zones” which would slash taxes for corporations. His austerity plan was rolled out in a new African-American voter outreach center office where the audience was largely white.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) answer to eliminating poverty is to provide use federal funding for school choice. Incensed because New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has suggested that he would charge rents in the for-profit charter schools, Cantor has threatened to hold hearings about these rents. Cantor’s goal is to destroy public education by giving the government funding to private schools.
These GOP members of Congress agree, however, on eliminating extended unemployment benefits and shredding the safety net, including the huge reduction of food stamps. Their desire to repeal the Affordable Care Act includes their wish to wipe out Medicaid expansion for people at and below the poverty line. In addition, they oppose raising the minimum wage, a solution that would raise almost six million people out of poverty. As typical of conservatives, they promote a mix of tax breaks and privatization approaches in an attempt to repackage their old failed positions.
This morning, Arthur Laffer, economist adviser to President Reagan, argued on the Fox network that the minimum wage is actually the “black teenage unemployment act” because it keeps teens out of the labor force. Laffer is not alone; many conservatives see low-income workers as black and young. They’re wrong: 84 percent are over 20, and 57 percent are white. Almost half work full time.
Raising the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour would fulfill the GOP wish that people work for what they get. At this time, the minimum doesn’t keep a parent above the poverty line or make market rent in any state. In the 1960s, minimum wage, equivalent to $10.65 today, was enough to keep a family of three out of poverty. Worker productivity has increased so radically, that the minimum should be $18.30 to keep up with the 1960s. A $10.10 minimum would increase the GDP by $22.1 billion and support at least 85,000 new jobs.
Eighty percent of people in the country support this minimum, including two-thirds of GOP members. Two-thirds of the people support an increase to $10.25 per hour. Yet many members of the GOP want to lower, not increase, the minimum wage.
A history of the safety net during the 20th century shows that the objections to helping the poor come from the expansion of aid to minorities 50 years ago. The objections kept climbing to Mitt Romney’s complaint—in private—that 47 percent of people in the United States are “dependent upon government.” After his loss, Romney echoed the complaints of the 1960s when he accused Barack Obama of being re-elected because he “focused on giving targeted groups a big gift—so he made a big effort on small things. Those small things, by the way, add up to trillions of dollars.”
Romney lost, but his running mate, Paul Ryan, will probably run again. His budget decimates Johnson’s War on Poverty, harshly impacting women and people of color. It repeals the Affordable Care Act, takes food stamps from over 12 million people, and causes steep reductions in child care, Head Start, job training, Pell Grants, housing, energy assistance, Supplemental Security Income, and Medicare.
These are the programs used during the War on Poverty to bring some people out of poverty. These are the programs that GOP presidential wannabes want to erradicate.