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Hullabaloo


Wednesday, January 08, 2014

 
Revisiting the War on Poverty

by digby



Today is the 50th anniversary of that speech and there are a lot of commemorations and discussions about how and why we find ourselves still confronting growing poverty 50 years later. I thought it might be interesting to just briefly discuss why it became so discredited over the years and how the right wing won the argument for so long.

There are many reasons for it, but one major way they did it was to sabotage the programs.  Rick Perlstein explains:
... [O]ne way conservatism has responded in its years in governmental power has been to install its own brand of bright-eyed madmen–bureaucrats who self-consciously understood their job as weakening the bureaucracies under their care. Richard Nixon, reading his 1972 landslide as a mandate for a hard-right turn in policy-making, pioneered this move by appointing conservative movement activist Howard Phillips as his head of the Office of Economic Opportunity, in charge of administering the War on Poverty. The Reagan Administration built up the obscure Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs into what historian Thomas Frank has described as “a mighty fortress dominating the strategic chokepoints of big government,” giving business lobbyists a chance to pass judgment on all new lines of federal regulation. And the Administration of George W. Bush (as Alan Wolfe notes in another essay in this symposium) similarly tapped anti-government administrators to run the government.

Also, I'm sorry to say, this. But then the President made it clear before he ran that he was sympathetic to Reagan and his supporters' determination to clear out the dead wood of the Great Society.)Of course, the robotic mantra of "pragmatic, private/public, devolution,outsourcing" to fix the intractable problems of poverty and middle class torpor have been the watchwords of both parties for nearly a quarter of a century so there's no surprise.

They didn't invent this sort of thing in the 60s, of course. They've been playing this way for a very long time, as Perlstein illustrates in the rest of that article, which is well worth looking at, especially if you are of the mistaken impression that the Koch brothers are the first plutocrats in American history to create front groups to sell their aristocratic agenda.

In this piece, Igor Volsky takes a focused look at the way the right went after the War on Poverty specifically almost from the day it was enacted. Here he talks about Reagan's speeches during the Goldwater campaign:
In the...address, titled A Time Of Choosing, Reagan tapped into the anxieties about the role of women during that day, suggesting that they would divorce their husbands to receive more government assistance:
Now—so now we declare “war on poverty”… But seriously, what are we doing to those we seek to help? Not too long ago, a judge called me here in Los Angeles. He told me of a young woman who’d come before him for a divorce. She had six children, was pregnant with her seventh. Under his questioning, she revealed her husband was a laborer earning 250 dollars a month. She wanted a divorce to get an 80 dollar raise. She’s eligible for 330 dollars a month in the Aid to Dependent Children Program. She got the idea from two women in her neighborhood who’d already done that very thing.
“The image is not just of poverty, the image is of moral depravity,” Jeremi Suri of The University of Texas at Austin noted. “The presumption in Reagan’s rhetoric, and it’s not too below the surface, is that these mothers are single mothers because they’ve done something wrong, so they’re an easy target. It’s easy to make the argument that this woman who [had apparently been] immoral in the way she behaves…and we as a government should not encourage that kind of immoral behavior.”

And I'm fairly sure what race most people assumed this alleged welfare cheat was, aren't you?

Both the War on Poverty and the Great Society policies in general have been ridiculously distorted in service of that right wing agenda. Like any ambitious program there were ideas that didn't ending up working very well. But a whole lot of them did.

I found this op-ed from 1989, on the 25th anniversary of the speech that laid it out very nicely:

The key elements in the package enacted in 1964 have been so successful that they have been continued, albeit not generously enough, by every Administration since Mr. Johnson's: Head Start, Job Corps, Vista, Upward Bound, Foster Grandparents, Community Action. Ask millions of beneficiaries whether the war has been lost.

The initial effort sparked other programs that have significantly helped the poor: Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, low-income housing, manpower training, minimum-wage improvements, aid to education, beneficial tax-law changes.

A new consciousness - and conscience - about America's poor has been evident. Even conservative Ronald Reagan acknowledged the need for a social ''safety net.''

Did every program of the 60's work? Was every dollar used to its maximum potential? Should every Great Society program be reinstated or increased? Of course not.

But we must also ask these questions: Has every defense contract yielded a perfect product, at minimum cost? Has every cancer project brought a cure? Has every space launching succeeded? Has every diplomatic initiative brought peace?

Why should a less than perfect record for social programs be less tolerable to society than failed economic, military or diplomatic policies?

Every day, thousands of babies are being born who - if we fail to take the necessary actions, public and private - are doomed to be poor for the rest of their lives. They may well be the parents of another generation of impoverished children 25 years hence.

He went on to ask:

Can we afford a renewed war on poverty? Is it even thinkable at a time of huge Federal deficits?

First, we cannot afford not to resume the war. One way or another, the problem will remain expensive. Somehow, we will provide for the survival needs of the poorest: welfare, food stamps, beds and roofs for the homeless, Medicaid. The fewer poor there are, the fewer the relief problems. Getting people out of poverty is the most cost-effective public investment.

Second, if the additional public funds required for adequate education and training and housing programs cannot come from increased or diverted Federal funds, taxes must be raised.

In 1939, a quarter century before Presidents John F. Kennedy and Johnson declared war on poverty, Franklin D. Roosevelt gave us a sound basis for judging our national character. ''The test of our progress,'' he said, ''is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who already have much; it is whether we do enough for those who have too little.''

Twenty-five years from today, will we be able to say we have met that test?

Well ok, let's give it another 25 years before we decide. We don't want to make a hasty decision.

Now the right wing will say that it's the remaining tattered elements of our safety net that have caused the ongoing poverty. Just ask Rand Paul who says that allowing long term unemployed people to keep some food in their bellies makes them lazy so we need to "help" them by throwing them off the rolls even when there are no jobs. This is how they always frame these issues: the poor are inferior childlike folk who just don't understand what it is to work hard and they need our tough love. (And those are the so-called compassionate ones!)

Much of the Great Society worked, but between the culture war, the Vietnam War and the war within the Democratic party, the whole thing was easily discredited by those who needed it nipped in the bud before it got out of hand and people began to think robust social welfare programs might actually be a good companion to our dynamic economic system. That would shatter the worldview of the Titans of Industry and the Masters of the Universe (not to mention certain Calvinist true believers) who need to think that only the naturally superior live at the top of our food chain.

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