Paul Ryan (R-WI), chair of the House Budget Committee, issued a 250-page report in March entitled “The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later.” Unsurprisingly, the report repeats the conservative charge that the alleged “disincentives to work” in federal anti-poverty programs remain a primary cause of poverty. In introducing the report, Ryan drew heavily on this argument, contending that “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”
Paul Ryan’s remarks are likely only initial salvos in a fiftieth-anniversary ideological conflict over whether the War on Poverty failed or succeeded. So far, most liberal commentators have responded by defending the effectiveness of anti-poverty programs in keeping tens of millions out of poverty. Yet it is not just conservatives who deploy the “culture of poverty” argument these days. While President Obama recently offered minor, inexpensive proposals to restore “equality of opportunity” (like partnering community colleges with corporations on job training programs), he continually chides black men for abandoning their parental responsibilities. His “My Brother’s Keepers Initiative” asks philanthropic organizations to help young black men get “back on track” and stop “abandon[ing] their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men.”
Rarely does Obama speak of mass inner-city under- and unemployment as factors contributing to this phenomenon, or of the evidence that non-married African-American fathers are, on average, more involved in parenting than are white non-married fathers. Indeed, few mainstream commentators argue that the War on Poverty did not go far enough, or that the economic devastation of inner cities and the industrial heartland have structural economic causes that made “work disappear,” as sociologist William Julius Wilson put it twenty years ago. If there are jobs to be had in these areas, they are low-wage service jobs that fail to provide a family wage, often even if two family members hold such jobs.
Politicians of both parties talk about ameliorating poverty. Yet few “opinion makers” argue that poverty could be radically curtailed, perhaps eliminated, if we had the political will to transform the American economy. Absent social movements militantly protesting growing inequality, our political elites are unlikely to shift budget and tax priorities so as to fund federal job creation programs and expand social rights such as truly universal health care, publicly funded child care, and parental leave.
Some 47.1 million people, or 15.1 percent of the U.S. population, now live in poverty—the highest number in fifty-two years, up from 11.7 percent in 2000
A recent MSNBC special on the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty, hosted by Chris Hayes, illustrates the inability of many liberals to understand how the structural transformation of the economy over the past thirty years has increased mass poverty. Hayes’s special superbly demonstrated the success of federal anti-poverty programs in moving people out of the ranks of the officially poor. (The core surviving programs of that era—food stamps, Medicaid, Head Start, community health centers, Medicare, and an increase in the real value of Social Security—today take nearly 30 million people out of poverty.) Hayes also highlighted how addressing the needs of low-wage women, particularly by raising the minimum wage and publicly funding child care, would benefit men as well as women and children.
Yet the program failed to analyze, in depth, how thirty years of bipartisan neoliberal economic policies—deregulation, regressive tax cuts, defunding social welfare programs, and anti-unionism—have driven poverty rates up close to those that existed before the War on Poverty began in the 1960s. While the program highlighted the need to expand public expenditure on child care, parental leave, and public housing, it did not connect decades of bipartisan support for tax cuts for corporations and the rich, combined with wasteful military expenditure, to the claims by “deficit hawks” of both parties that we cannot afford to expand public provision. Hayes interviewed a laid-off Wisconsin public sector worker who is now exhausting her 401(k) to avoid homelessness, but didn’t note the role of Republican Governor Scott Walker’s slash-and-burn attacks on the public sector (and public employee unions) in the loss of her job. No analyst mentioned that this is the first postwar recession in which public sector employment contracted rather than expanded, due to congressional failure to appropriate federal funds to shore up state budgets. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) served as the program’s advocate for paid parental leave, yet she is the darling of a finance industry hungry for tax shelters as well as a leading “tough on defense” Democrat. Thus, it is not surprising that her parental-leave proposal falls far short of the amount of public funding needed to make paid leave a reality for low-wage workers.
The United States Census reported in September 2012 that 47.1 million people, or 15.1 percent of the population, now live in poverty—the highest number in fifty-two years, up from 11.7 percent of the population in 2000. Half of these individuals are children and nearly 60 percent of poor adults are women. Almost half of this group has family incomes below 50 percent of the official poverty level, or $22,113 for a family of four. That is only 30 percent of the average family income, while the 1962 poverty line was 50 percent of the average income. If we returned the poverty line to that 50 percent measure, or about $32,000, over 22 percent of families would today fall below the official poverty line—the same percentage of U.S. families who were poor when Michael Harrington wrote The Other America in 1962.
Up through the mid-1970s, most observers agreed that the War on Poverty had been largely successful. From 1965 to 1978, the share of the population living in poverty dropped from one in five to one in nine. After 1978, however, much of the effort to end poverty among children and adults under sixty-five was not only abandoned but actually reversed, as Republican-led administrations refused to increase the minimum wage and the Clinton administration “ended welfare as we know it.” From Reagan onward, the federal government also largely abandoned any role in providing housing assistance for low-income people.
Amid this federal pullback, the face of poverty has changed. In 1962 a fully employed worker guaranteed that the family would live above the poverty line, while today one half of families living in official poverty have a full-time worker in the household. In part, this is due to the corporate assault on union strength (in 1962, 30 percent of U.S. workers belonged to a union; today only 12 percent do). The wages at the very bottom have failed to keep up with inflation; nearly one-quarter of full-time jobs in this country do not pay enough to lift a family of four above the family poverty line. Two-thirds of those who hold such jobs are female and one-half of low-wage earners are people of color. This decline in real wages is part of the reason why in the U.S. today over 22 percent of children live in poverty, while no European member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has a child poverty rate higher than 10 percent.
Raising the minimum wage to its 1962 real level, $10.10, would, according to University of Massachusetts economist Arindrajit Dube, take 4.6 million additional people out of poverty and strike a blow against racial and gender inequality. If the minimum wage rose commensurate with the increase in productivity of the average U.S. worker since 1962, it would stand even higher, at a robust $17.20. This is why the “Fight for 15” demand is far from utopian. A $15 minimum wage would lower the existing poverty rate from 15.1 percent in the United States to less than 10 percent.
Any effort to alleviate mass poverty must take on the right’s systematic and successful disinformation campaign. For decades, conservatives have depicted the poor not as workers without work or a living wage, or as parents who engage in productive work caring for infants, but as moral failures. A network of conservative journals, think tanks, and political leaders play on misogynist and racist stereotypes about single mothers. Reagan invented stories about “welfare queens” driving Cadillacs in Detroit, riding high on what Charles Murray called “generous” benefits provided through Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), even as the value of those benefits dropped 30 percent from 1970 to 1985, when Charles Murray’s Losing Ground was published. Today, we hear about people who lack motivation to seek work because of “generous” unemployment benefits, even though there are well over three unemployed people for every job opening in the United States. In the right’s racialized rhetoric, there is plenty of blame for the victim, and little focus on policies that would alter the structure of economic opportunities for the poor of all races.
But the problem is not just the right. The conservative rollback campaign made a major bipartisan breakthrough in the 1990s with Bill Clinton’s “welfare reform,” one of the most infamous Democratic Party concessions to the right’s post-Reagan poverty agenda. The punitive work requirements of Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF, the non-entitlement program that replaced AFDC) along with inadequate funding for child care mean that most women and children can no longer qualify for welfare benefits. The laid-off public sector worker from Wisconsin that Chris Hayes interviewed on the MSNBC special was able to get a college degree in 1996 while she was an AFDC recipient, but subsequent generations of women are barred from pursuing higher education while on TANF—a fact the host failed to note. In 1995, 12.1 million children and women received AFDC; today only 4.9 million receive TANF. That number is up from 4.5 million in 2008, a stunningly small increase in the welfare rolls during the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. In 2008, only 22 percent of poor children received welfare, compared to 61 percent of poor children in 1995. In 1991, 12 percent of poor women had no job and received no welfare. By 2007 the number was 34 percent.
Contemporary U.S. poverty is not only the problem of an invisible “Other America.” It touches all of us directly or indirectly, because it is a product of our “race-to-the-bottom” low-wage economy. Since 2000, over 40 percent of people in the United States have experienced six months or more of living at the poverty level. Poverty is also increasingly a function of low-wage workers trying to raise children. The conscious corporate and state attack on the right to organize unions has created a more vulnerable labor force, particularly in the service and care sectors. The absence of a road to citizenship and labor rights for over 8 million undocumented workers also contributes to a weakening of wages, benefits, and working conditions for all low-wage workers. All of this is further exacerbated by Republican proposals to cut food stamps by $40 billion over the next ten years—a move that will throw millions more into poverty—as well as bipartisan efforts to cut the real value of Social Security and to continue the “sequester” cuts to domestic discretionary spending.
We can choose either to perpetuate “blame the victim” anti-poor policies of the past or to fight for the massive job training and full employment programs that Michael Harrington advocated but were never adopted. Only mass mobilization by working and poor people can prevent further cuts to the social safety net and win the type of reforms that would keep many more out of poverty. That will involve legitimating the word “socialism” in U.S. politics, as any policies that threaten to redistribute wealth and power are redbaited off the table by both Republicans and moderate Democrats. And it will require overcoming the bipartisan elite consensus in favor of policies that create massive poverty among not only children, the disabled, and the vulnerable, but also among working families.
Dissent is a quarterly, left-liberal magazine of politics and culture.
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