By MARSHA MERCER
President Ronald Reagan liked to say America fought a war on poverty and poverty won.
Latter-day Reaganites have been quoting their hero a lot on the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of unconditional war on poverty.
Like most glib remarks, though, Reagan’s famous line isn’t entirely accurate. The war on poverty certainly hasn’t ended poverty, but the programs and benefits its critics malign have helped reduce the pain of poverty for millions.
“Poverty has declined by more than a third since 1967,” President Barack Obama’s Council on Economic Advisers reported in its assessment of the War on Poverty at 50. When tax credits, food stamps, housing assistance and other benefits are taken into account, 16 percent of the population was living in poverty in 2012, down from 25.8 percent in 1967, the council said.
Don’t get me wrong: These statistics are nothing to celebrate. It’s deplorable that nearly 50 million Americans – one in six of us -- struggle with economic deprivation. Even more disturbing is that many are stuck at the bottom of the ladder. Social mobility is greater in Canada than in our land of opportunity.
The sad fact is that many Americans still live “on the outskirts of hope,” as Johnson said in his 1964 State of the Union address. But the solution is not to abandon the fight or yank the safety net.
“Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity,” Johnson said half a century ago, and it should be ours as well. By “our task,” LBJ did not mean only members of Congress. He urged all Americans to join in the effort.
Most Americans didn’t join -- beyond paying their taxes and perhaps giving to charity. The work of helping the poor falls heavily on churches and community organizations, but they can do only so much.
It needs to be said that some commentators and politicians, Reagan among them, made political hay by focusing on abuses of the welfare system, which fed the public’s cynicism. When he ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976, Reagan talked about a “welfare queen” who supposedly cheated the system by claiming benefits under dozens of false names.
Investigative reporters were unable to find the woman, but the damage was done. Americans are generous by nature but we hate squandering our tax dollars.
Republicans and Democrats mostly have attacked each other instead of poverty. Today, there’s a growing consensus that education and jobs must be part of the solution. Two potential GOP presidential candidates -- Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., – have begun staking out positions that might actually amount to something.
Ryan, the House Budget chairman, believes current welfare programs isolate the poor, who need to be “reintegrated” into society, although he hasn’t provided details. He favors vouchers for housing and schools, as he does for Medicare. Rubio wants to consolidate all federal anti-poverty funding into one agency that would send the money to the states to run their own poverty programs.
These ideas have been floated for years as ways to dismantle the welfare state. Reagan railed against the government’s fostering dependency just as tea party enthusiasts do now.
Obama believes that government has an important role in preventing poverty, especially with early childhood education. But the former community organizer also knows that improving people’s chances in life requires more than proclamations from Washington.
“It’s important that our faith institutions and our businesses and the parents and the communities themselves are involved in designing and thinking through how do we move forward,” the president said, adding that it’s crucial that poverty programs actually work.
“If they don’t work we should try something else,” he said, acknowledging that supporters often resist giving up on failed programs.
We know that doing three simple things practically guarantees that someone won’t live in poverty: finish high school, get a job and marry before starting a family. And yet generations of Americans have missed the message.
No one can be satisfied with the status quo. It is time to consider new approaches to break the still-obstinate cycle of poverty.
Our task, as LBJ said five decades ago, is to work together to replace despair with opportunity.
©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.