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?