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January 16th, 2014

Closer To Ending Poverty?

Fifty years ago, LBJ challenged us to end poverty. Are we any closer?


Last week marked the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s State of the Union address in which he declared “unconditional war on poverty in America.” He challenged Americans to end the great injustice:

It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it. One thousand dollars invested in salvaging an unemployable youth today can return $40,000 or more in his lifetime.

Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support. But this attack, to be effective, must also be organized at the state and the local level and must be supported and directed by state and local efforts.

For the war against poverty will not be won here in Washington. It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House.

To mark the anniversary, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami and Fr. Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA, penned a letter to Congress “to consider closely any legislation that begins to heal our broken economy by promoting decent work and ensuring fair and just compensation for all workers.”
There isn’t much on the docket, but Congress is considering a couple of pieces of legislation that address poverty and inequality.

Legislators are considering whether or not to extend unemployment benefits to more than 1 million Americans who saw an end to their checks at the close of the 2013. Though it appeared last week that the Senate might pass a bill, some Republican Senators have expressed skepticism in the last couple of days and it appears in jeopardy.

President Obama and Congressional Democrats are pushing a proposal that would raise the federal minimum wage, currently at $7.25 an hour, to $10.10 per hour by 2015, then tie it to inflation after that. A group of 75 economists support the measure, signing a letter in which they claim that an increase will have no negative impact on employment, and, in fact, could “have a small stimulative effect on the economy as low-wage workers spend their additional earnings, raising demand and job growth, and providing some help on the jobs front.”

Currently, a full-time worker earning minimum wage has a salary of only $15,000, well below the federal poverty line. The increase in 2015 would raise that salary to $21,000.

Congressional watchers are skeptical that an increase in the minimum wage is likely, but it will probably be a talking point later this year when mid-term elections heat up.

Extending unemployment and raising the minimum wage seem like no-brainers, and the millions of Americans who will benefit from a little extra cash would be most grateful.

But surely Washington has better ideas than these modest proposals?

Maybe not, says the Washington Post’s Melinda Henneberger.

Henneberger attended an event at the Brookings Institution focused on closing the growing gap between rich and poor featuring two rising stars, Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Democrat Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. Henneberger laments that both lawmakers seemed to lack new ideas and relied, instead, on tired talking points that were sometimes decades old. She does, however, concede that Ryan, famous for his praise of Ayn Rand, does sound sincere in his talk about combating poverty. Could this mark a shift in the GOP to focus more on the poor? If so, why?

Over at the New Republic, Tod Lindberg thinks Pope Francis might have something to do with it. He writes that the pope’s “remarks on the insufficiency of the capitalist system and his evident distress with its unequal outcomes are threatening to undo the Church’s thirty-years truce with ‘liberalization’ in the classical sense.”

Henneberger, though, ends her column with the observation that “The real shame, though, is that there aren’t more new ideas to kick around.”
Why aren’t there new ideas?

One need only look at the Congressional spending bill, totaling $1.1 trillion that will fund the government through October and put an end, for now, to the bitter battles on Capitol Hill that sent the government into shutdown mode last year.

The bill, though funding government essentials, lacks imaginative investment that could help alleviate poverty in the years to come.

Where’s the investment in major infrastructure projects that would provide jobs today and fuel innovation tomorrow? As tuition skyrockets, where’s the investment in community colleges and state universities that were once the ticket to the middle-class? Why no major investment in pro-family policies like parental leave, early childhood education, and innovations in K-12 education?

Our collective refusal to think long term and to invest our money in ways that will yield fruitful results will only further the income gap and perpetuate poverty. We’re all in this together, and passing legislation that helps the poor ultimately helps us all. Again, LBJ in his address to Congress:

These programs are obviously not for the poor or the underprivileged alone. Every American will benefit by the extension of social security to cover the hospital costs of their aged parents. Every American community will benefit from the construction or modernization of schools, libraries, hospitals, and nursing homes, from the training of more nurses and from the improvement of urban renewal in public transit.

Fifty years later, are we any closer to investing toward a more equitable society?

The Author : Michael O'Loughlin
Mike O'Loughlin is a writer living in Washington, D.C., covering religion, politics, and culture. In addition to Busted Halo, his writing appears in the Advocate, National Catholic Reporter, Foreign Policy, Religion & Politics, and America. He's also appeared on Fox News and MSNBC. Follow him on twitter at @mikeoloughlin.
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  • RufusChoate

    50 Years of failure, trillions of wealth transferred from the productive to the parasites (in government and serviced by government) and not a single percent change in the number of people below the poverty line but LBJ’s and the Left’s is realized: a massive population of permanent voters for increased benefits and an ever expanding bureaucracy that lives off the poor and has no real interest in addressing the moral depravity, lack of responsibility and initiative for a decent work ethic and a moral family life of the permanent underclass.

    If the some of the Left in the Church loves the War on Poverty, I would recommend they drop their tax exempt status of their Church and build some factories to employed their patrons and stop planning on importing more illiterate peasants from South American Kleptocracies. .

  • DHFabian

    No. Think about it. We looked at the programs and policies that took the US to its height of wealth AND productivity, from FDR to Reagan, and chose to reverse course. This generation chose to “address” poverty either by demonizing the poor or utterly ignoring the issue. We un-learned the lessons of the past, and are beginning to suffer the obvious consequences.

  • Sus

    It’s been 50 years and there still isn’t enough “take from the rich and give to the poor”?
    Working a minimum wage job was meant to be a stepping stone to better employment for someone such as a high schooler or person trying to temporarily make ends meet. Now, the “logic” is that a minimum wage income is supposed to support a family? Where is that extra money going to come from? Will McDonald’s customers pay $5 for a hamburger? Or do you think the selfish McDonald’s franchisees should dig into their own pockets to pay the extra? Since it’s creation, has raising the minimum wage drawn us closer to ending poverty?
    Republicans aren’t focused on the poor? Year after year, Republicans contribute more to charitable organizations than Democrats. Joe Biden is famous for only donating 1.4% of his income in 2010 and less than 1.5% in 2011. In 2010 Biden didn’t donate a penny to a Catholic church.
    Taxpayer money is being funneled to programs that do nothing to encourage employment or job growth but only serve to stifle it (EPA, DOJ, NRLB, etc.) Many times, it has been suggested that there be less federal government intrusion into business and industry in order to encourage hiring. This (supposed) novel idea continues to fall on deaf ears.
    If you want to see what “investing” needs to be done to create a “more equitable society” I suggest you get out of Washington, D.C., Mr. O’Loughlin. It behooves those living inside the beltway to promote the federal government as the answer to all of society’s ills because so many are being very well fed by the taxpayers and lobbyists. And everyone that is living in that fish bowl will only continue to perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

    • DHFabian

      What an odd post, leaving more questions than answers. What are these “programs that help the poor, financed by our benevolent rich Republicans? Regardless, while charity eases extreme poverty (as much as a meal can do this), very few of the poor actually have access to this very short-term emergency aid. Republicans did, indeed, focus and demonize the poor starting with the Reagan administration, waging a very successful campaign against the poor, pitting the middle class against those in poverty — for a very good reason. This isn’t the first time in our history when the richest few took power over of govt, to the great harm of the country. Each time in the past, the poor and middle class, workers and the jobless, ultimately united to push back. That can’t happen this time, and that’s tragic, ensuring the continued deterioration of the US. This time around, it was Democrats who took the lead, pitting the middle against the poor — or more accurately, Bill Clinton’s “New Democrats.” Today, we are indulging in a celebration of the bourgeoisie, those still in the middle class, ignoring poverty, as well as those policies that increase US poverty.

      • edwardchamberlain

        Did race play -any- role in Reagan’s rhetoric bashing the poor? And the electorate’s embrace of it.

        I would appreciate your opinion on this Ms. Fabian. I enjoy reading your posts, you are well informed, patriotic, intelligent, and determined. Sock it to ’em sister!

      • RufusChoate

        Yeah it is always about race. The party of Jim Crow, Slavery, Miscegenation Laws, Lynching, Segregation and Abortion figured out a way to create a permanent voting class by building a welfare dystopia without hope or morality. .

      • RufusChoate

        It is only an odd post because you’re an economic illiterate who thinks you’re morally superior because you’ve devised a way to live off the Poor while pretending to be concerned about them.

  • TBTG

    Is it true that 20 years ago for every dollar the government spent on poverty 72 cents was used for running the program and the remainder for the intended recipient? If so, I would rather have charitable organizations empower the poor. They certainly would be better stewards than wasteful government programs. I don’t know of any government program that is effective and efficient do you?

    • DHFabian

      Giving an impoverished person a supper in the local church hall does not empower them. One thing that middle classers can’t grasp: We’ve been transitioning into a bottom wage job market for years. Low wage workers are a single job loss from losing everything, with no way back up. How do you get a job without a home address, phone, bus fare? The poor have had to pay an extraordinarily high price for the mismanagement and exploitation of our former poverty relief programs.

      • TBTG

        Charities especially at the local level do more than offer church suppers. A myopic view of charitable organizations limits your discussion. If the government were held to the same standards of helping the poor, they would get a failing grade. Pumping more money into programs or failed policies will not solve the complex issue of helping others achieve economic freedom. Complex quality of life issues deserve individual attention and not a band aid. Safety nets aimed at the local level would be best suited to helping those in need and not a government one size fits all solution. Thanks for the feedback though.

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