Fifty years after President Lyndon Johnson declared “unconditional war on poverty,” no one can reasonably argue that the government’s massive effort didn’t help.
It’s more a question of how much it helped. And today, it’s a question of how to make these essential programs more effective and sustainable for a new generation.
In his watershed speech, coming just about six weeks after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, LBJ promised to “cure” poverty. By that measure, of course, he failed. Four in 10 children remain impoverished. And in the hill country of Appalachia, where the new president launched his effort in the spring of 1964, poverty remains stubbornly entrenched.
At the same time, Johnson’s policies widened the fault line between Americans over the role of government in their lives — between those who want limited government and those who look to government to solve problems. This widening of the Republican-Democrat split created by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal is a legacy of Johnson’s vision.
In time, the Great Society would include an array of new initiatives: Medicare and Medicaid, the first direct federal aid to school districts, Head Start, food stamps, environmental legislation, the Job Corps to provide vocational education, urban renewal programs, national endowments for the arts and humanities, civil rights legislation and an expanded Social Security program.
The combined effect of these programs drove poverty down significantly from 1967 to 2012, according to a recent study by economists at Columbia University. Researchers found that if government transfers are included in the mix, poverty fell from 26 percent to 16 percent. As The Washington Post’s Wonk Blog pointed out last week, government intervention is the only reason there are fewer Americans living in poverty now than 45 years ago. In 2012, about 4 million people were spared from poverty by food stamps alone.
But persistent poverty in both urban and rural America remains a significant problem. So does income inequality, which is the widest it has been since the 1920s.
We favor raising the minimum wage on the federal level — not piecemeal at the local level. We favor any reasonable effort to encourage the creation of new businesses, which leads to jobs. The yawning gap in income has much to do with a lack of good-paying jobs.
The biggest of the entitlement programs must be set right for future deserving recipients. Medicare should be means tested so that wealthier recipients pay more of the bills. Social Security’s solvency could be ensured by either raising the age for drawing benefits or increasing the cap on the payroll tax. Democrats should be open to changes in entitlements to make them sustainable. Republicans should be open to increased taxes to shore them up.
It was notable that House Budget Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) didn’t go anywhere near entitlement reform during the recent budget agreement. That small-bore deal was an accomplishment after months of wrangling, but it also was a reminder of just how far the nation needs to go.
Finally, we believe something else is required of every American: a sense of responsibility for those in need. Poverty is different from the other “wars” fought on social battlefields in this country. Unlike the “wars” against drugs and crime, it is relatively easy for the comfortable to remain unaware of want in their own communities, easier sometimes to show compassion for those thousands of miles away when the real work is five minutes from our own backyards.
The anniversary of Johnson’s grand experiment is a good time for both parties to commit themselves to an honest debate over how best to preserve the American safety net and relieve income inequality. The answer is not shredding programs. The answer is fixing them.
Republished from the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentine. Distributed by Creators.com.