Opinion / Political

The Poor Man’s War

By RITA WANG, political columnist

January marked the fiftieth anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of the War on Poverty—a war that, in 1964, changed the United States government’s role on the issue of poverty from one of mild to one of active involvement. President Johnson also created a set of poverty-fighting programs as part of his Great Society, including Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, the Food Stamp Act, and Job Corps, all of which still exist today. However, many critics (notably Republican Representative Steve Southerland of Florida) have asserted that the war has been ineffective, especially because, as they say, the programs encourage “free handouts” instead of actual job incentives. However, the War on Poverty has actually made significant gains, although admittedly more progress could still be made.

“The percentage of people in poverty today as compared to 50 years ago, as a percentage, is less, but I also want to make sure that it is very clear that today there are more Americans living in poverty.” Although Representative Southerland’s statement is mathematically accurate, it is a logical fallacy to assume that there is a direct correlation between the number of Americans living in poverty and the actions taken as part of the War on Poverty. He misunderstands why poverty is expressed as a percentage in the first place; the percentage itself has decreased by 9% in the span of these fifty years, which is a huge step—especially considering that the war has only been fought halfheartedly.

What critics also fail to acknowledge is that the American population has steadily increased since President Johnson first declared the War on Poverty. According to simple economic principles, a country with a rapidly growing population may be unable to provide sufficient jobs and resources, which generally contributes to an increased percentage of citizens living in poverty. But in spite of this principle, the percentage of Americans living in poverty has actually decreased, a possible indicator of job growth.

The American economy is in a completely different place from where it was in 1964. Because the decline of unions has caused the disappearance of the low-skill jobs that promised middle-class incomes, it is imperative that people in poverty acquire the skills necessary to attain higher-income jobs. But in order to reach this goal, education, welfare, and healthcare are indispensable. And to receive a worthwhile education, students must focus primarily on learning. While they are focused on learning, it is essential that they have welfare and healthcare to meet their basic needs.

The biggest critique of the War on Poverty is that it drains a large amount of income from the federal budget with little or no reward for those actually living below the poverty line. However, with the exceptions of Medicare and Medicaid, welfare and education are responsible for roughly 12% of the federal budget. In comparison, defense receives 19% percent of the budget. So while critics describe the War on Poverty as incredibly expensive with no gain, other recent wars may be more deserving of such a description.

Due to continuous administration changes, extensive policy differences, and the democratic process, it is almost impossible to declare the War on Poverty a lost cause when it has barely been addressed. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society was successful in lowering the poverty rate from a whopping 22.2% in 1960 to an all-time low of 11.1% in 1973. Unfortunately, focus shifted away from President Johnson’s fiscal efforts to combat  poverty in America to financing the Vietnam War and, later, the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Moreover, Reaganomics, an economic plan that revolved around the reduction of taxes and an obsession with budget balancing, stagnated the effects of President Johnson’s welfare and education programs. It was only when President Obama and the Democrats passed the Affordable Care Act in 2009 that the War finally resumed, despite the considerable opposition it continues to meet.

Of course, it is not too late to begin enacting serious measures to address the War on Poverty, but first the divide between the two parties must be bridged. Both Republicans and Democrats want to aid the 15% of Americans living in poverty, but they want to provide relief to impoverished Americans in different ways.  Republicans denounce the culture of poverty and dislike programs such as food stamps and government housing because they believe citizens are being encouraged to rely on the system rather than seek employment. Instead, they believe that concentrating on the country’s economic recovery would be a more worthwhile endeavor. Meanwhile, Democrats are more likely to “throw money at the problem” by simply increasing welfare funding, and they argue that such measures are exceptionally feasible in this context. Yet if the history of the War on Poverty has taught Americans anything, it is that the solutions these two sides offer cannot be implemented interchangeably. Instead of complaining, as politicians like Steve Southerland have, that the War is not effective or feasible, Congress should hammer out a comprehensive, bipartisan plan to address poverty in the near future. But we know how difficult that will be, considering the fact that the 113th Congress cannot even pass a simple budget extension without shutting down the government.

Ultimately, it is too soon to wave our white flags and admit defeat in the War on Poverty, as it hasn’t been fought properly in the first place. Despite its half-hearted support, the endeavor has decreased poverty rates drastically since its implementation, which speaks for its benefits and the usefulness of welfare programs. The fact that this war has been somewhat successful, especially at its inception, means that it is indeed a war worth continuing to fight. Wake up, America: fifty years is much too long a time to delay a war. For the sake of our country and its future, we need to finally take a definitive stand against poverty.

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