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Est. April 5, 2002
October 06, 2016 - Issue 669

Whatever Happened
to the
"WAR On Poverty?"


"Any number of analyses of the anti-poverty
programs show that they did work, but in
the past 30 years, the relentless attacks on
social programs in favor of the military, defense,
and the country’s seemingly endless wars have
taken their toll.  There has been less and less
support for policies and programs that benefit
the people, especially those in most need."

In all of the bluster and rhetoric that has been spewed during the presidential primary campaigns and the current campaign between the Democratic and Republican nominees, there has been little to no mention of poverty in the U.S., let alone what should be done about it.

At another time in our history, it would have been one of the top priorities on any national candidate’s list of issues. But these times are different. There has been a period of several decades in which Americans have been told, almost on a daily basis, that applying for and receiving any kind of assistance is proof that they are lazy and a burden on the rest of society. Too many have come to believe that and many have given up looking for work that doesn’t exist.

Despite what is in the business journals, in newspapers, and on television, that times are getting better, that the economy is “improving,” and that all job-seekers need is to get educated or trained to apply for the jobs that are out there. They are not reporting on the reality of poverty and the disruption that it causes in society, the chaotic conditions that arise as a result of poverty.

Much of the blame can be placed directly on the political system, which tolerates racism, classism, and which allows regions of the country to fester in unemployment and poverty. When connecting poverty to politics and then to the unrest in the country, never forget the Nelson Mandela statement that “poverty is no accident.” President Lyndon Johnson, when he signed the Economic Opportunity Act in August 1964, said that the program aimed not only to cure poverty as a societal ill, but to prevent it. And, just as surely as he signed the “War on Poverty” act, the rumblings on the right kicked into high gear, voicing their opposition to anything that smacked of government intervention, or the slippery slope to socialism, as they saw it.

It was the opinion of many elected officials on the right that the poor should be made to pull themselves up “by their bootstraps.” Turns out, there were few bootstraps. And there were fewer ways out of the misery of poverty. The bootstrap philosophy is one that is just a fantasy of those in power, but the fantasies are just cover for hard-heartedness and avarice.

Any number of analyses of the anti-poverty programs show that they did work, but in the past 30 years, the relentless attacks on social programs in favor of the military, defense, and the country’s seemingly endless wars have taken their toll. There has been less and less support for policies and programs that benefit the people, especially those in most need.

In the current presidential campaign, and in down-ballot campaigns, there is much talk about “creating jobs and stimulating the economy,” but little about poverty and the causes of poverty. Job creation should be high on the list of any aspirant to the presidency or to either house of the Congress, but that would be a big ship to turn. For decades, the substance of the U.S. economy has been hollowed out by the shifting of manufacturing to other countries, until there are young people wandering around looking for a job for which they were educated (bachelor’s and master’s degrees) and trained, and finding only service jobs at minimum wage or just above. In addition to that obstacle, they face years, if not decades, of monthly payments for student loans. Their lives are put on hold for a long time and that’s a waste of talent and time for society.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, when he was chairman of the House Budget Committee, released his committee’s report, The War on Poverty 50 Years Later. True to form, he and his committee, along with the Republicans in both houses, declared that the 92 programs in the half-century effort had not been successful. Basically, the report was a cover to slash payments to childcare, college Pell grants, and welfare programs of any kind. President Richard Nixon ended the Office of Economic Opportunity (Donald Rumsfeld headed the OEO in his administration) in 1973, but many of the 92 programs were dispersed among other government agencies and are still in effect today.

Numerous observers in the intervening years have asserted that the attention paid to Black America by the War on Poverty generated a backlash against any and all programs to benefit the poor. That animus is still present and can be seen in such slogans as “take back America” and “Make America Great Again,” all thinly disguised to ram black Americans back into ghettoes. To the political right, President Johnson’s “Great Society” was not their friend and, in fact, had to be stamped out.

One of the most important parts of the “war” was the expansion of Social Security and the food stamp program that became SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), which politicians of the right and their handlers in Corporate America have been trying to reduce or eliminate for many decades. However, since it has kept untold numbers of families from food insecurity and hunger, the programs have persisted and grown. The remaining programs from the War on Poverty have gone a long way toward keeping large areas of the U.S. from resembling the conditions of developing nations, although those conditions do exist in some parts of the U.S.

An alternative would be an economy that includes everyone, with a job that pays well and that can support a family in good health. That economy has fled and a large percentage of the nation’s manufactured goods are made in those developing nations, where the pay is so low that Americans never would be able to compete in the so-called global economy. Big Business has been sending jobs elsewhere for a long time, but the flow out became a river, when President Bill Clinton signed into law the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), an agreement that caused job losses in all three countries. It put out of business thousands of small farmers and small shop owners in Mexico and caused the loss of 500,000 Canadian jobs in the first year.

Americans are told repeatedly that the federal government needs to cut social programs to reduce the budget, so that taxes can be cut (mostly for the rich and big business). In Ryan’s report on the 50-year anniversary of the War on Poverty noted: “…there are dozens of education and job-training programs, 17 different food-aid programs, and over 20 housing programs. The federal government spent $799 billion on these programs in fiscal year 2012.” These are the programs that Ryan and his Republicans want to reduce and cut, where possible.

Meanwhile, in each year’s federal budget, there is some $700 billion allocated for military and defense, and that may not be all of the expenditures on “defense” and war making. There are many programs and departments that are directly connected to our continual war efforts, but do not show up as defense expenditures. These allocations and budget items will not be cut. Rather, they will grow, as new targets are found and new excuses found to bomb them.

This is an ancient choice for civilizations throughout history: guns or butter. You can’t have both. The U.S. has tried for a half-century to do that and it hasn’t worked. The country is in decline in many ways, as if trying to prove that a nation and society can have both, but the proof that it can’t be done is all around us: failing infrastructure, mass incarceration, environmental degradation, underemployment for the masses, lack of health care for tens of millions, substandard housing, student debt, bad water, unclean air, and industrial food production.

Two presidents, Eisenhower and Johnson, explicitly warned the U.S. about this but the warnings have gone unheeded. The solution might be as simple as a renewal of the War on Poverty (not a war on the poor, as we are seeing today), for lifting all of the poor from their condition will lift the entire country. There must be a demand for the renewal of the War on Poverty. The alternative is the impoverishment of the whole and that won’t be a pretty sight to see. Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.




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