Sticking Up for the Johnson Administration Poverty Position

We had a nice story today in the Plain Dealer about activists wanting a new emphasis on poverty in the Plain Dealer.  Thanks to Larry at Organize!Ohio for putting together this event.   We also read about a press conference in Washington DC from Senator Marco Rubio bashing the "War on Poverty" and previewing the conservative response to the high poverty rates in the United States.  I would like to mark the 50th anniversary of the Lyndon Johnson announcement of the "War on Poverty" in January of 1964 as a big step forward for the United States.  

First, it has to be said that the entire War metaphor is off base and problematic.   By no stretch of the imagination can this be seen as the same as the US response to German/Japanese aggression in the late 1930s or even the Vietnam conflict that was ratcheting up to a full scale war in the early 1960s.   The Johnson administration should accept some criticism for using the war metaphor and the political symbolism of fighting a two "wars" at the same time or using one assault on poverty to distract the public from the drums of war heating up in Southeast Asia. 

Progressives who came to the event in Cleveland on Wednesday at Lutheran Metro Ministry want a renewed interest in supporting the programs created by the Johnson administration.  All of these programs are under attack.  With cuts to Food Stamps, regular attacks on Medicaid, and misunderstandings about unemployment assistance, there is a lack of support for government programs.  We have not done enough to put a dent in poverty with record numbers of people falling below the poverty line.  The minimum wage and wages in general has been stagnant in America for decades.  There are more than 46 million people living in poverty, and we have not worked to address income inequality since the early 1970s.  

Regarding the response from the other side led by Senator Rubio who was also calling for fundamental changes are not ready for prime time.  No legislation was proposed by Rubio and some of the ideas have already been tried and failed.  We already reformed welfare nearly out of existence and that did not reduce poverty and lift the boats of single moms who utilized the program.  Rubio said that, "Our government programs at best offer only a partial solution."   His push was to turn over all the Johnson poverty programs over to the states.  These block granting of programs will only make communities such as most of the South fall further behind in education, health of their citizens, and real income.  The reality is that despite Rubio's comments the needs of the poor are the same in Portland and Toledo as they are in St. Petersburg and St. Louis.   We all need the proper housing, nutritious food, health care, employment that pays a living wage for a family, and quality education to leave poverty.  It is not complicated, and we should not make this into some science experiment.  Every time we try block granting, the state takes their cut and half the states do not meet the goals of the national program and those citizens are left behind.  The proof that letting the states make the decision about how to address poverty will not work can be summed up by the graphic from FamiliesUSA showing 25 states that are not going to expand Medicaid.  These states, for purely political reasons, are not going to help their poorest citizens gain access to health care. 

I wanted to put in a pitch for the value of the Johnson administration effort to reduce poverty.  While we have not figured out how to move large numbers out of poverty, these programs have improved the safety net.  The health of children across the United States has improved because of access to immunizations and doctors.  Infant mortality has decreased and people have better access to food and clean water.  The life span of Americans has increased.  Sanitation is widely available which has reduced disease. Early childhood education is available and preparing kids for school.  Yes, those gains are often lost because of our poor schools, but we need to look at the gains and not throw those out as a way to reduce federal expenditures toward reducing poverty.   We need to boost our commitment toward housing which was not emphasized in the 1964 speech.  We need to quickly move beyond the Affordable Care Act to a Medicaid-for-all system to eliminate the for-profit middleman involved in our health care.  We need to do more to place people into jobs that pay a families living wage and charge companies a fine for every full time employees using food stamps or other government subsidies. Even though Johnson used an awful metaphor to kick off this struggle to reduce poverty, it has to be said that the programs kicked off in 1964 have made America stronger.

Brian Davis

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