Face-Off: the ‘War on Poverty’

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Oklahoma Watch invited researchers from two Oklahoma think tanks — the  Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and the Oklahoma Policy Institute — to offer their views on the  theme, “The ‘War on Poverty:’ Success or Failure?'”

We must stay committed to the ‘War on Poverty’
By Gene Perry

Policy Director, Oklahoma Policy Institute

Gene Perry

Gene Perry” credit=” 

In 1967, poverty researcher Peter Edelman visited some of the poorest communities in America. He was shocked by what he found. Mechanization had eliminated agriculture jobs across the South, and families were left with no source of income and no safety net to protect them from hunger and severe malnutrition. Edelman saw children with bellies distended by famine and sores that wouldn’t heal.

Edelman was on the front lines of the “War on Poverty,” which President Lyndon Johnson launched 50 years ago this month. Johnson sought to end poverty’s “wastage of resources and human lives.” To do this, the President and Congress expanded education and jobs programs, enacted ongoing nutrition assistance, and created Medicare and Medicaid to ensure access to health care for seniors and the very poor.

In the years since, both Democratic and Republican administrations have strengthened some important strands of the safety net. The earned income tax credit, which helps families earning low wages make ends meet, was established under President Nixon and expanded under Presidents Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Clinton. President Obama temporarily expanded the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and unemployment insurance during the Great Recession.

That brings us to today. Fifty years after President Johnson took on the challenge, much has improved for the poorest Americans. Although many families still struggle to put enough food on the table, we don’t see the kind of mass hunger that existed before the modern food stamp program. Almost twice as many Americans would be living in poverty today if not for the safety net developed by President Johnson and his successors.

We’ve made progress, but the struggle isn’t over. More than 500,000 Oklahomans are still living in poverty, according to the most recent data. It’s especially troubling that poverty is at its highest among families with children younger than five years old.

Unfortunately, some critics want to move us in the wrong direction by cutting away at the safety net. They cite the official poverty rate, which is nearly the same as fifty years ago, as evidence that public services like SNAP and Medicaid are not reducing poverty.

This argument misses some key facts. First, the official poverty rate only considers cash income before taxes, so it leaves out the biggest safety net programs — SNAP, health insurance, and the earned income tax credit. Counting these benefits as income and adjusting for the cost of living creates a more accurate picture. A recently developed “Supplemental Poverty Measure” that takes these factors into account shows the poverty rate dropped to 16 percent in 2012 from 26 percent in 1967.

Another factor that critics of the War on Poverty overlook is that many Americans are still being left out from the benefits of economic growth. Two years after the Great Recession officially ended, more than 10 million Americans had jobs but still lived in poverty. Many more earned just enough to be one health crisis or layoff away from poverty. These “working poor” Americans include many restaurant workers, construction workers and caregivers in nursing homes and child care centers.

Wages for these workers have stagnated for decades, even though the economy as a whole has grown and a huge amount of wealth has flooded up to the top earners. We need to do more through education, science and infrastructure investment, stronger workplace protections and a higher minimum wage to secure an economy that works for everyone who wants to work. We don’t have that economy today, so the safety net is needed now more than ever.

Fortunately, the days of American famine are behind us. We must stay committed to the War on Poverty to make sure those days don’t return.

The War on Poverty fails because it ignores that man is more than his material needs

By Tina Korbe Dzurisin
Research Associate, Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs

Tina Korbe Dzurisin

Tina Korbe Dzurisin” credit=” 

Fifty years after President Lyndon B. Johnson launched his “War on Poverty,” the government has spent about $20 trillion on federal and state welfare programs, but the poverty rate has barely budged – from about 19 percent in 1964 to 15 percent today.
Nevertheless, the U.S. poor of the 2010s enjoy a much higher standard of living than did the U.S. poor of the 1960s.

According to Heritage Foundation scholars Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield, the typical poor person in America has considerably more living space than does the average European. About 93 percent of poor households assert they always have “enough food to eat,” although 26 percent say they do not always have the foods they prefer. The overwhelming majority of poor households own refrigerators, televisions and cell phones – amenities our great-grandparents, whatever their socioeconomic status, did not have.

This higher standard of living is not captured by the relatively unchanged poverty rate, however, because the bureaucrats who calculate that rate ignore welfare benefits in their calculations.

Still, the poverty rate remains an important measure of the success or failure of the War on Poverty. While it might not tell us exactly how many Americans are truly destitute, it does give us a sense of how many Americans are not earning enough to provide the standard American lifestyle for themselves and their families out of their own income.

Human flourishing is not defined solely by what we have. A person who has more in the way of material things is not necessarily flourishing more than a person who has less, and vice versa. How we acquire what we have matters, too.

Those who aim to eradicate poverty through government transfers of wealth miss this truth. While welfare benefits improve material living conditions, they deny recipients the dignity of earned success, of a sense of themselves as human persons with irreplaceable contributions to make.

As American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks often repeats, earned success is strongly correlated with happiness, just as unearned transfers of wealth are correlated with a lack of happiness.

Going on the welfare rolls increases by 16 percent the likelihood of a person saying he or she has felt inconsolably sad over the past month (even after controlling for poverty and unemployment). Similarly, low-income married couples who receive government assistance report lower levels of marital commitment and satisfaction than low-income married couples who do not receive government assistance.
The War on Poverty will fail as long as those who wage it reduce the human person to his material needs. When, however, they acknowledge the fundamental need of the human person to give of himself in voluntary community to earn his own success, they will be able to identify more appropriate methods by which to alleviate the suffering of those who are poor.

The promotion of marriage must necessarily be among those methods. A child with married parents is 80 percent less likely to live in poverty than the child of unmarried parents.

The promotion of work, worship and a robust civil society, all of which have been linked to increased economic mobility, will also be important. Within that civil society, an increase in private charity and a resurgence of gift-giving among neighbors would mitigate material hardship while simultaneously enhancing personal relationships and creating “a culture of encounter.”

As Brooks put it, “Defending a healthy culture of family, community and work does not mean imposing an alien ‘bourgeois’ morality on others. It is to recognize what people need to be happy and successful — and what is most missing today in the lives of too many poor people.”

  • Cheri Ezzell

    I have been working with Oklahomans living under the poverty line for the past 15 years. The reason that children with married parents are less likely to live in poverty has little to do with marriage and everything to do with two working adults contributing to one household. It doesn’t matter if these adults are married or not. Too many young women with low skills are raising children on their own. Too many young men walk away from their responsibilities. But, we cannot say that marriage is the solution when we have such high rates of domestic violence and divorce. Both of these things have their own horrible impacts on children. In addition, recently I have been working with a local private food pantry and have had my eyes opened about hunger. The large majority of people who depend on the food pantry are adults living on social security or disability and not receiving SNAP. Many have serious illnesses. It is common to see old ladies with monthly incomes of $657. The War on Poverty was and is a noble idea. But, it probably would have made more sense to agree that there are people who need our help and that there is a moral imperative to help them. We just need to do it in ways that really make a long term difference. Crisis stabilization, training and education come to mind. And, we need to make sure that we are doing all we can to help children fully develop when they are little. Otherwise, we’ll have them in our prisons later on. Sadly, long term approaches are never very popular, but they are the most effective. We’ve come a long way in 50 years. But, we’ve been investing in each other for much longer than that. I wonder where we would be without Social Security, Medicare, the GI Bill, and other successful initiatives? We’re still all in this together.

  • Eric Von Buelow

    It is impossible to consider yourself a sentient, self-aware human being – particularly an educated one – and cite the Heritage Foundation.

  • Beth Perry

    “How we acquire what we have matters…and feeling inconsolably sad” are direct links to the situation imposed on the working poor. It has little to do with the acceptance of help and more to do with the cause. When you slave away at two or three minimum wage (or less) jobs 12-15 hours per day and still can’t make ends meet, you are invariably going to be sad. The war on poverty is failing because it hasn’t gone far enough. Raising the minimum wage is desperately needed. That alone would help a lot of people live a more secure life. But that alone would have no impact without changes in the amount of profit the business owners and corporations squeeze out of their enterprises off the backs of their employees. If the end result in a pay increase is price increases across the board, the potentially strong impact of raising the minimum wage on the economy will be negatively influenced. Constantly chipping away at the government benefits that are currently in place to help the members of society who are struggling the most only serve to weaken an already shaky foundation.

  • First of all, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs is NOT a non-partisan think tank. They have ties to the conservative group A.L.E.C. who has strong ties with Koch and Exxon. In otherwards, they are not working for the betterment of Oklahomans, but for the corporations. The fact that they chose a pretty young blond girl with blue eyes is a marketing ploy. It tends to go over favorably with mothers and men.

    In case you don’t know about A.L.E.C., our governor and conservative leaders have sworn their allegiance to this group that basically puts corporate interests ahead of the people. They are the ones who WRITE the bills that the senators pass, they help with campaign donations, (see a pattern?) and they are the ones that want to do away with education and prison funding so that they can both be privatized.

    Imagine a country where people are poor, uneducated and have no “American Dream.” There’s a good chance they will become desperate and end up in prison. No problem! That makes MORE money for the corporations. (see the pattern?)

    According the the US Census Bureau, 1 in every 3 people that you know are living under the poverty line since the Great Recession. Of those, the majority are white and a large number are working at least one job.

    Corporations were given trillions in subsidies in the last few years to stimulate the economy, but instead of raising pay and creating good jobs, corporations lowered pay and the jobs that were created were mainly in the service industries. Now some politicians, corporate spokesmen or puppets and others are talking about doing away with the minimum wage and paying around $4 per hour to workers.

    A lot of the propaganda (yes, I said propaganda) that you are hearing from the conservative extremists is fascism. So, how does that affect you? After all, you have a good job. You’re not a freeloader.

    THIS is exactly the type of government that the RIGHT WING (also used) conservatives want to bring to America. This is the same brand of government that was ruled by the likes of Hitler, Mussolini, and Francisco Franco.

    Ann Coulter is one of the conservatives who proudly declared that she supports fascism.

    Franklin D. Roosevelt said “”The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism – ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. ”

    I sincerely hope that your eyes are beginning to open to the things that are taking place in government and business because it affects all of us.

  • amanda petty

    opening your eyes is terrifying, overwhelming, and it hurts…
    to realize that the country you LOVE could be capable of betrayal like that on such an astronomical scale to it’s own citizenry…
    then you realize how close …. and I am actually afraid to type what else I wanted to say….

  • Mutha Media

    Wow! Nancy you are so off on so many levels but let me to point out just a couple of items:
    Unions – a bastion of democrat money laundering has published that Obamacare alone will decrease American wages to about $5/hour. Why do you think they got a waiver?
    Amnesty – Obama’s 2.0 big push will further drive wages down when millions of illegals get to stay in the U.S.
    Hitler – let’s see…a charismatic speaker with little to no governing experience or business experience became a leader based on a simple message. “Hope and Change”? Hitler also wanted to “register” guns. “This year will go down in history. For the first time, a civilized nation has full gun registration! Our streets will be safer, our police more efficient, and the world will follow our lead into the future.”
    Adolf Hitler, 1935 ALEC is an association that stands up for the Second Amendment.
    We have a government that gives OUR tax dollars as refunds to illegals, give illegals free education. We have muslims & leftists who want to do away with the Pledge of Allegiance in our schools just like school prayer. Our president enforces laws such as immigration and health care on a whim but let’s blame conservatives for that. You really could enlighten your thinking by reading Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals and see what this government is all about. Also, study the “Cloward Piven” theory. While you’re at it….google the campaign slogan “Forward”.

  • Alex

    Yeah, the above commentator fails to mention that obamacare was largely based on a conservative alternative to universal healthcare and it was watered down. Comparing obama to hitler is ludicrous and destroys your credibility to make arguments. Alec is a fascist organization, folks can argue by having the government regulate things in favor of certain businesses and industry. For instance having judges set high bail to benefit bail bond companies, or protecting the monopoly of time warner cable, its corporate cronyism.

    Conservatives love to talk about the promoting “marriage”, really, the government should not be involved in your choice to remain single, married, happily divorced,etc. Government should also not give subsidies exclusively to married couples such as SS benefits solely because you are married.

    As for the war on poverty, cutbacks 15 years after the start of it were in place, the 1980s saw several cuts, tanf was eroded by inflation, can you folks expect a family of 3 to live on less than $6 a day!, however conservatives love to talk about the success of welfare reform and lie that folks are “dependent on meager” benefits. Only 4% of americans get housing assistance, but the heritage foundation will spin facts and ignore it saying yeah “we have a lot of other welfare programs but let’s not talk about how difficult it is to qualify or rather get some of them”.

    Is Medicare a failure, a socialist policy, folks on Medicare usually get more than they pay in, taxes on Medicare have no cap, it is mean tested, non-wage income is being taxed, and Medicare spends a lot of money. It’s the classic socialist program, but oh were are the conservatives attacking Medicare, they aren’t there, instead of course turning it into a voucher program to dumb it down, but refusing to call it socialist.