The War on Poverty Worked

Michael Tomasky
The War on Poverty Worked

So now Sen. Marco Rubio is trying to join Rep. Paul Ryan’s conservative bleeding-hearts club band. The Florida senator is releasing a video timed to Wednesday’s 50th anniversary of the launch of the war on poverty to declare said war a failure and launch his own. Woot woot. That isn’t necessarily stupid politics, at least as a general election strategy for 2016. How the guy who’s already alienated the wingers on immigration expects to make it through the primary season trying to get conservatives to care about poor people is another question, but that’s his problem. 

Our problem is when conservatives like Rubio talk gibberish: “Isn’t it time to declare big government’s war on poverty a failure?” No, it isn’t. It’s high time to say the war on poverty was a success. A wild success, indeed, by nearly every meaningful measure. But no one thinks so, and a big part of the reason is that most Democrats are afraid to say so. They’d damn well better start. If we’re really going to be raising the minimum wage and tackling inequality, someone needs to be willing to say to the American people that these kinds of approaches get results.

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You may have seen the big Times piece Sunday that looked back over the half-century war on poverty, kicked off by Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 State of the Union address. The article noted that in terms of health and nutrition and numerous other factors, the poor in the United States are immeasurably less immiserated today than they were then. But it did lead by saying the overall poverty rate in all that time has dropped only from 19 to 15 percent, suggesting to the casual reader that all these billions for five decades haven’t accomplished much.

What’s wrong with thinking is that we have not, of course, been fighting any kind of serious war on poverty for five decades. We fought it with truly adequate funding for about one decade. Less, even. Then the backlash started, and by 1981, Ronald Reagan’s government was fighting a war on the war on poverty. The fate of many anti-poverty programs has ebbed and flowed ever since.

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But at the beginning, in the ’60s, those programs were fully funded, or close. And what happened? According to Joseph Califano, who worked in the Johnson White House, “the portion of Americans living below the poverty line dropped from 22.2 percent to 12.6 percent, the most dramatic decline over such a brief period in this century.” That’s a staggering 43 percent reduction. In six years.

The war on poverty then lost steam in the 1970s. Some of that was Johnson’s fault—money that might have been spent fighting poverty was diverted to bombing and shooting the Vietnamese. Some of it was the fault of liberal rhetoric. Johnson and others would speak of eradicating poverty, and of course eradicating poverty is impossible, and when it didn’t happen, conservatives were able to say, “See?” (Democrats ought to have learned their lesson along these lines; Barack Obama made a similar mistake in 2009, vowing that the stimulus would keep the jobless rate under 8.5 percent.) And so the public started electing politicians who told them poverty couldn’t be cured by government but only by pulling up one’s bootstraps and friending Jesus more aggressively.

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But even for its shortcomings, the Great Society and the war on poverty did absolutely amazing things. I’d like my fellow West Virginia natives to imagine our capital-poor state without the billions the Appalachian Regional Commission has spent since 1965 on roads, local economic development, community health clinics, and numerous other projects. The Great Society brought federal billions to schools, made college possible for millions of kids from modest means, educated innumerable doctors, and so much more. And it’s always worth remembering that the official poverty rate, now 15 percent, overstates the true number because it doesn’t take into account certain policies that don’t offer direct subsidies to poor people, notably the Earned Income Tax Credit, a once bipartisan policy that went to 27.5 million families in 2010 and encourages work and lifts many millions of families above the poverty line.

The political problem is that Americans don’t know about or focus on these successes. They just know that we tried, and poverty still exists. Thus has the “war” frame ended up being extremely handy for conservatives, who will always be able to point to the existence of poor people and therefore to make the claim that the whole thing has been a failure. That is why Rubio can say what he says in his new video and have people who don’t know any better nodding their heads in agreement. And it’s why Ryan can prattle on as he does about government and dependency. I can assure you that when both unveil their specific policy platforms later this year, they’ll consist of a mix of things that a) already exist in some form; b) have been tried and proved tricky to implement; c) sound good in theory but will be woefully underfunded; or d) have been studied to death, with findings suggesting their impact will be minimal.

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It will be Democrats’ job to make sure Rubio and Ryan can’t get away with their ideological sleight of hand. They will undoubtedly speak solemnly, for example, of teenage pregnancy and child-bearing, confident that most Americans don’t know that the incidence of these behaviors, even in the African-American community, has decreased dramatically since 1990. If we are entering a new phase of fighting a war on inequality, Americans need to know some facts about the last war that firmly support the view that the effort and resources have done far more good than harm. The Democrats just have to be willing—and proud—to say it and say it and say it.

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