Commentary: It's time to renew our War on Poverty
Authored by Sharon Ward, originally published at PennLive.com and the Harrisburg Patriot-News.
The early 1960s was the height of the American Century. Our nation had survived a depression, fought and won a world war, and become an economic powerhouse. Before the end of the decade we would put a man on the moon.
America’s technological innovation and rising educational success fueled growing productivity, yielding higher wages and benefits for working families. Life was getting better.
Michael Harrington’s book, "The Other America," awoke the nation to the heart-wrenching reality of severe poverty in America’s rural hollers and inner cities, and asked whether these extremes were tolerable in the world’s richest nation.
In a time of seemingly endless possibility, President Lyndon Johnson said “no”, declaring a “national war on poverty” in his 1964 State of the Union address.
Our nation has made remarkable progress rising to Lyndon Johnson’s challenge. Using a comprehensive measurement, poverty has fallen significantly over the last half-century. Today, the safety net cuts the poverty rate by almost half and reduces the depth of poverty for millions of people.
This progress is even more remarkable given the challenges we have faced. Before 1973, the War on Poverty was fought with economic winds at our back. Since then, declining wage growth and growing inequality have made the battle much harder. We are now fighting into the wind.
The War on Poverty deployed a comprehensive set of new and enhanced federal programs to raise families’ incomes.
The War on Poverty deployed a comprehensive set of new and enhanced federal programs to raise families’ incomes, improve health and well-being, and expand opportunity. Since the mid-1960s, average incomes among the poorest fifth of Americans have risen significantly, and severe child malnutrition has largely disappeared.
Policymakers created Medicare and Medicaid, boosted Social Security benefits, supplemented K-12 education, created the framework for today’s college-aid programs and loans, and launched Head Start. They converted the food stamps pilot project into a permanent program, and expanded housing assistance for seniors and low-income families.
Richard Nixon contributed the idea of a negative income tax to the War on Poverty – today’s Earned Income Tax Credit – which boosts millions of families out of poverty each year and encourages increased work.
Researchers have been able to document significant benefits from War on Poverty programs. Disadvantaged children in the 1960s and 1970s who had access to food stamps in early childhood and whose mothers had access during their pregnancy were less likely in adulthood to have stunted growth, be diagnosed with heart disease, or be obese than those who had lacked access to this nutritional assistance. These children were also more likely to graduate from high school.
Infant mortality is down sharply, due in no small part due to the Medicaid program, which made health insurance available to many very poor mothers and infants for the first time.
The impact of the War on Poverty has boosted the economy as well. Federal assistance has raised college participation for whites, African Americans, and Latinos, lifting overall productivity and enhancing our nation’s economic success.
Skeptics will argue that the best way to address poverty is with a job. But a large number of the nation’s poor are senior citizens and children, who are not able to fend for themselves. And employment in this day and age may not be enough: one in 10 of the nation’s poor is a full-time worker. For Latinos, the rate is one in seven.
The notion that poverty is a permanent condition is not borne out by the facts. In a recent, three-year period, 29% of Americans were in poverty for at least two months, while only 2.8% were in poverty for the entire three-year period.
Still, despite significant progress, poverty in the US remains stubbornly high and well above similar wealthy nations. Our public programs are less generous and much less effective than those of other nations. Michael Harrington’s moral call to the nation’s conscience remains as relevant today as 50 years ago.
Almost 50 million people were poor in 2012, using the Supplemental Poverty Measure, including 13 million children. Moreover, 16 million people, including nearly 3.5 million children, live below half of the poverty line.
Being poor isn’t easy. Almost six in 10 poor children live in households that experience significant hardship at some point during the year — problems affording adequate food, overcrowded housing, falling behind on rent or mortgage payments, or having utilities suspended. Any one of these hardships is an impediment to learning; in combination, they are a yoke that children will carry for a lifetime.
It’s time to open up a new front in the War on Poverty.
A first step would be raising the minimum wage to help restore its lost purchasing power. No one working full time should be poor.
We also should renew our commitment to public education for poor children, who have been disproportionately harmed by state education cuts.
We mark the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty at a time when the very programs that have been successful for half a century are threatened. We cannot retreat, and we must not surrender.