By AMEER MALIK, political columnist
In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson made his “War On Poverty” speech, in which he called for new legislation to help this nation’s poorest individuals. Soon after his address, Congress passed several laws aimed at helping underprivileged Americans rise out of poverty. These included measures such as the Economic Opportunity Act—which gave funds for vocational training and set up Job Corps to provide training for unemployed young people—as well as the Social Security Act, the Food Stamp Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The fiftieth anniversary of President Johnson’s speech this past January sparked public discussion over the lasting effects of these initiatives, their successes and failures, and how to deal with poverty now and in the future. Many Republicans have recently been especially vocal in expressing their views on the current state of poverty as well as anti-poverty measures; some have even offered reforms of their own.
Republican Congressman Paul Ryan and Senator Marco Rubio believe that programs designed to help the poor should be implemented at the local level. Rubio proposed that the funding for programs that tackle poverty should switch over from the federal government to the state governments through a measure that he calls a “Flex Fund.” This plan consists of block grants that would combine programs aimed at a variety of people and places. Recently, Mitch McConnell, Minority Leader of Senate, voted against renewing benefits for the unemployed, which expired for about one million long-term unemployed individuals in early January. The primary reason for his and many other Senators’ decision to vote against this measure was to avoid adding to the national debt. These positions and views aren’t surprising; they align with the current conservative ideology of a hands-off federal government.
The Republicans have a reasonable point. According to the Cato Institute, $16 trillion have been spent over the past fifty years by the government in its efforts to reduce poverty; however, 15% of all Americans today are still living in poverty. Also, the numerous welfare programs are contributing to the national debt because many people have become dependent on welfare and do not make any effort on their own to better their situations. Critics of welfare programs like the Cato Institute stress that the focus of anti-poverty measures should be to give individuals the means—including good education and employment— to get out of poverty instead of simply handing out money. Furthermore, the Institute claims that an increase in the availability of welfare correlates with an increase in the number of children born out of wedlock, which is a problem because kids raised in households with only one parent are five times more likely to be poor than those raised in households with both parents. There are other shortcomings to government anti-poverty programs as well. According to the Brookings Institution, poverty has been moving from urban areas to suburban areas because suburban areas lack the networks to support individuals with low incomes, and federal programs have not been successful in providing povetry-combating mechanisms to the suburbs.
However, the high possibility that Congress will not pass meaningful or impactful anti-poverty legislation in the future due to partisanship is a very real one. Democrats may attempt to pass legislation that matches liberal ideology but will not get the necessary support from Republicans; likewise, Republicans may try to pass laws that fit the conservative mindset, which the Democrats will not support. This feared but all-too-likely scenario will ultimately lead to no significant accomplishments in alleviating poverty. This stalemate must be prevented, since many people are impoverished and struggling to cope financially. Congress should therefore pursue pragmatic solutions instead of ideological ones. That way, those who are suffering economically may have a chance to actually improve their lives. Research by non-partisan groups is imperative to determine which programs have worked and which have failed; those that have not done much to alleviate poverty should be adjusted or altered, while the successful ones should be allowed to continue. A blend of programs is necessary, some to give money to help the poor and others to work toward enabling them to get out of poverty through increased education and job training. It should not matter which ideology wins out in this struggle; if poverty is ameliorated, all of Congress will be winners.
Ultimately, it is encouraging that our leaders are tackling an issue that directly affects us. Lyndon B. Johnson’s desire to help the poor has not been forgotten. Congress is trying to help this country in a significant way. However, our leaders must remember one important fact: if stubborn political ideologies continue to clash against each other to determine which party should win, the American people will lose. This is a war in which all Americans are on the same side; let us hope that our leaders remember this.