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GRAY MATTERS: Growing Poverty

SaulFriedman75x75 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?

Write to saulfriedman@comcast.net

Comments

Whatever happened to the myth of the greatest nation on earth, if in fact it was ever true? Such sweeping change in our perspective and action must occur now with the stressed natural world, escalation of global conflicts, pressures of industrial "progress," erosion of family and community and resultant economic distress. We are all called to downsize, grow up, open up to our bigger potential and work together rather than continuing our old isolation. We must create a new culture.

Where? Our militant passions are subdued by age, poverty, and unemployment in this household. The kids, in their 40's, are fighting unemployment and living far, far below the poverty line. The grandkids are are suffering from PTSD or are headed to Afghanistan....or are so young they still have hope. What a summary.

Well, here certainly is one such voice - yours, Saul. In fact, there are many voices. But there are also many channels, and many different audiences. We now choose what we hear, and we choose to hear what we prefer to believe.

Postmodernity, with its abolition of absolutes and its credo of constructs and relativism, has undermined the notion of ideals. Without a shared understanding of ideals, and a belief that we must always strive to achieve them, today's Friedmans and Agees cannot rely on either shame or dream to move or inspire others.

We need socialism more than ever.

Thank you for this post, Saul. I no longer know what to say about being from a country that will no longer offer a hand up to those who are suffering (and I don't mean just money but solid programs that help people). I guess I'm stunned because I grew up needing these services by virtue of being born into a disadvantageous situation. My children are leading much more successful lives by having been aided by the HeadStart program and supported public schooling. My son graduated Cum Laude from WSU - the first male to graduate from ANY accredited university in my primary family EVER - and I assure you that would NOT have happened without the assistance of Civic programs that aided me and allowed the foundations for his interest in learning to take root.

I feel as a citizen of this United States that I have to try harder to help people from my own backyard. I've let go of expecting my government to help the people who are suffering around me. I have to. It completely immobilizes me to trust the government. I find the situation asking me to take my expectations of entitlement via an America that cares back and do a better job with less. It breaks my heart to see the human potential lost to an uncaring political machine.

The poverty limits are artifically low, based on an old formula that does not recognize the costs of today.

I don't think most Americans realize the magnitude of poverty in our country. Because of the focus on the war, terrorism, economy, oil spills and the myriad problems that loom large, the public is numbed by the many things gone wrong in our country.

Without a voice of conscience focusing on poverty the problem is shoved into the background. Maybe Michael Moore needs to make a movie showing the tragedy of poverty and what it does to children.

Thank you for doing the research and writing another great article, Saul.

Actually, I know of one such voice: "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" -- By Barbara Ehrenreich. The book is an eye-opener as the author actually goes on a journey across the country WORKING at low-paying, no benefits jobs, and takes us along to witness her experiences. The focus is how difficult it is to be "working poor." Highly recommended.

Another great post, Saul.

On target post Saul, thank you. My most recent and harrowing view of the poverty in this country came with Katrina when we saw thousands of people trapped and dying in the flood because they had no cars, no busses, and no money to get themselves out, and no one came to help. Now many precious long held homes, whatever their conditon, have been swept away or otherwise destroyed and people dispersed with the clothes on their backs, and the situation still continues.

Diane Sawyer's piece on Applachia was another eye opener that should be shown again on prime time. Lastly, though Bush is gone many of the members who occupied congress then and aided and abetted him are still there. The bums on both sides of the aisles should be tossed out.

My own family (mostly used to be middle class), luckier than many, are college educated with 2 and 4 year degrees, and have lost their jobs and in some cases the careers they chose have disappeared. They continue to be out of work; financial security and medical care is out of reach, and much more so is it for those who had little or nothing to begin with? So sad.

I went to "the website" to opt out for pre-approved and so forth and the form wanted my social security number. So I opted out of opting out online. I avoid anything that requires putting my SS# out there. Am I being paranoid?

I notice that politicians, including Obama, never refer to "the poor" these days. They talk only about the hardships of the middle class. Apparently, they think it would cost them votes if they appeared to be asking for help for the poor.

When did "the poor" disappear from political vocabularies?

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