We Lost the War on Poverty

Bill Neinast


Interest in war news wanes quickly.  Once the emotional rush from news about the first big battles wears off, coverage and interest of things like which teams will compete in the next Rose Bowl take the headlines.

Unless there is an incident like the recent rescue of the American doctor in captivity by the Taliban, the war in Afghanistan rarely makes the evening news.  When it is discussed, the war is frequently mentioned as the longest running war in American history.

That is a misnomer.  Historically, America’s involvement in Afghanistan is like an infant.  Compared with the 100 Years War (1337-1453) between England and France for the control of the French throne, the opening shots are just being fired in Afghanistan.

There is a forgotten American war, however, that may soon replace the fifty year old Arab/Israeli conflict as the second longest war in history.  That is the so called war on poverty.

The first shot in this crown jewel of liberalism was fired by President Lyndon Johnson in his State of the Union speech on January 8, 1964.  In just a few days, this war will pass its 48th anniversary.

The dollars spent in prosecuting the war in Afghanistan are easy to calculate because they come out of the Defense Department’s annual budget.  Not so, however, with the war on poverty.   There is such a hodgepodge of overlapping and competing programs and departments, an Army division of accountants could not reach a consensus on the cost of this war. 

As in any war there is an enemy, poverty.   The “absolute poverty line” is defined as the threshold below which families or individuals are considered to be lacking the resources to meet the basic needs for healthy living. 

Dependent on the cost of living, the line continuously moves up and down. This year, the government set that line at $23,050.00 for a family of four.

The commanders in the war to keep moving families above that line have had many weapons systems at their disposable.  Consider the first act passed to engage the enemy, The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964.  That act spawned the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the Job Corps, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Upward Bound, Head Start, Legal Services, the Neighborhood Youth Corps, the Community Action Program (CAP), the college Work-Study program, Neighborhood Development Centers, small business loan programs, rural programs, migrant worker programs, remedial education projects, local health care centers, and others.

Rarely mentioned in descriptions of the war is an $11 billion tax cut (Revenue Act of 1964) pushed through by the Johnson Administration.  That tax cut is credited with an extraordinary economic expansion that provided jobs for the poor.

Shortly thereafter, however, the Department of Housing and Urban Development was created in 1965 and the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968.  These two acts and various Urban Renewal projects are criticized today for creating what some call slum apartments and housing areas in cities that became havens of gang activity. A number of those housing units have had to be destroyed because of abuse and neglect.

The programs that have created the largest drain on the federal budget, however, are the Social Security amendments creating Medicare/Medicaid.

That drain on the federal funds was not enough, so Supplemental Security Income (or SSI) was added in 1974.  This program provides monthly checks to low-income people who are either aged (65 or older), blind, or disabled.

In the 40 years since SSI was created the number of disabled has rocketed from 455,000 to 8.6 million.  In the last two years, 1,7730,000 new jobs were created.  In the same time, 790,000 people went on disability.

The poverty rate when President Johnson took aim at it in 1964 was 19%.  By 2004, in the midst of a booming economy, the rate had fallen to 12% with 35.9 million Americans living in poverty.  In 2009, the rate was back up to 20%.

The census figures for 2012 are that 46.2 million American, or 15%,  are below the poverty line.  Something seems wrong with those figures.  Only eight years ago, 36 million was 20% of the population.  Today, add ten million people and the percentage drops to 15%.  Has total population grown that much in a decade?

So here’s the perspective.

Professor Kent B. Germany of the University of Virginia believes that, after an exhaustive examination of the war on poverty, “Aggressive war rhetoric created expectations that could never be met. In the end, the War on Poverty did not end poverty and did not retard the economic isolation of inner city ghettos. It did not redistribute much wealth or address deep structural problems in the American economy, and, except on the fringes, those options were not serious considerations.”

President Reagan phrased it more bluntly in his final State of the Union address in 1988 when he stated that,  “in America’s War on Poverty, poverty won.”

And “the American taxpayer lost” should be added.


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