Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the weekly Gray Matters column which appears here each Saturday. Links to past Gray Matters columns can be found here. Saul's Reflections column, in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation, also appears at Time Goes By twice each month.
Long before there was a war on terrorism and the war on drugs, the nation declared war on poverty. Specifically, Lyndon Johnson in his first State of the Union, in 1964, declared amid great cheers from the Congress, an “unconditional war on poverty in America” and he pledged not to rest “until that war is won.”
In his last State of the Union in 1988, Ronald Reagan, who had been no fan of Johnson’s agenda, declared to snickering lawmakers, that in the War on Poverty, “poverty won.”
He was right, of course, but at least part of the reason was the hostility of the Republicans and segregationist Southern Democrats to the array of Johnson’s civil rights and anti-poverty campaign.
Richard Nixon adopted the War on Poverty and gave us the Social Security cost-of-living protection, but he abolished the Office of Economic Opportunity and other key segments of the law. Jimmy Carter eroded part of Social Security, and Bill Clinton boasted that he “ended welfare as we know it” by destroying the Depression-era Aid to Families With Dependent Children.
This bipartisan gnawing away at anti-poverty programs has had consequences for millions of poor American families.
In 1964, 19 percent of Americans lived below the poverty line; the numbers of poor Americans was estimated at a shameful 50 million. That declined to 12.8 percent in 1968, and 11.1 percent as late as 1973.
But after that brief decline in the poverty rates, since Reagan’s speech in 1988 and his emphasis on the “truly needy,” poverty in the United States has made a slow climb upwards to the 2008 rate of 13.2 percent, nearly one percent higher than in 2007, the most significant increase since 1994. And that doesn’t count the near-poor who live desperately just above the poverty line.
But the overall figures don’t tell half of the ugly story of poverty in the richest nation on earth. The 2008 Census Bureau figures – bad as they were – do not take into account the effects of the Great Recession. It will doubtless show an alarming slide into poverty for millions of American families, especially children and young workers and minorities who for the first time in their lives, need food stamps, Medicaid, extended unemployment insurance and the poverty programs that have been decimated.
In these cynical times, with deep divisions between left and right, it’s hard to believe there was a time when a book and a couple of articles struck a chord in the American conscience that made the plight of the poor a major issue.
University of Virginia historian Kent Germany recalled the works that caught the attention of President John Kennedy and his brother Robert. The New York Times’ Homer Bigart wrote a series on poverty in Appalachia which is at Washington’s door step. And the New Yorker’s Dwight MacDonald wrote a glowing review of Michael Harrington’s The Other America, a searing portrait of the 50 million poor.
John Kennedy had campaigned in the desolate areas of West Virginia. Later, Robert Kennedy made a tour of the most poverty-stricken areas and his report to his brother set in motion what became Johnson’s War on Poverty. Part of the groundswell for action came from the moral imperatives of the civil rights movement which opened many wounds including the plight of the poor – rural whites as well as blacks who lived without basic amenities.
Thus the Johnson administration, in the wake of Kennedy’s murder and his 1964 election sweep, pushed through the Congress the elements of his war on poverty, some parts of which still stand: the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), Volunteers In Service to America (VISTA), Upward Bound, Head Start, the Neighborhood Youth Corps, the Community Action Program, programs for rural areas, the urban poor, migrant workers, small businesses and local health care centers.
And because the reasons for poverty had their roots in racism and segregation, the Great Society programs included an $11 billion tax cut, the Civil Rights acts, the Food Stamp Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (which encouraged school desegregation), the Higher Education Act, the Voting Rights Act, and, of course, the monuments of Medicare and Medicaid.
Those two years, 1964-5, were the greatest periods of the federal government’s social activism since the Great Depression’s New Deal. But Johnson’s agenda and the latter years of his presidency were crippled by the Vietnam War and a Republican come-back in 1966.
Since then the turn away from government has been dramatic, epitomized by Democrat Clinton’s declaration that the “era of big government is over.” But what have we wrought in this time of the near-depression and the need for government? The poor and the newly poor have only a tattered safety net and official indifference.
According to the Census Bureau there were nearly 40 million American men, women and children struggling in poverty in 2008, before the full effects of the downturn were felt. Now the numbers surely reach past 50 million. The Pew Research Center estimates that 55 percent of adults in the workforce have become unemployed, taken a pay cut or had their hours reduced. The official unemployment figure is 9.5 percent, but many estimates say the real unemployment/underemployment rate is closer to 20 percent.
The long-term unemployment rate has not been seen since the Great Depression, with a quarter of the jobless without work for more than a year. Yet Republicans refuse to help with extended unemployment benefits; they cry crocodile tears over the deficit caused by the recession they helped create, but they seem not to care about the human costs.
Economist Dean Baker says, with some knowledge, that the Republicans want to keep unemployment high to discredit Barack Obama’s economic policies the better to win the off-year elections in November.
High, long term unemployment has put a strain on pantries and other facilities providing food for the poor. And most shameful are the unemployment rates (more than 25 percent) among young workers and their families.
And no one is suffering more than children. Before the recession, the official poverty rate among persons under 18 was close to 20 percent. Poverty rates among children over the last 40 years ranged from 15 to 23 percent. So we are at a new high. According to the Urban Institute, before the downturn, 37 percent of children lived in poverty for their first year, and ten percent spent half their childhoods (nine years) in poverty.
Kids know what poverty is like. I remember the humiliation when my mother applied for what was called “relief” and inspectors came to the house to determine if we were really poor.
During the Depression, writers like James Agee, Sinclair Lewis, T.S. Eliot and photographers like Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Robert Capa helped Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal stir the American conscience to action as Homer Bigart, Michael Harrington and the Kennedys did a generation later. Where are such voices now?
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