Tucson Progressive

Pamela Powers Hannley, a progressive voice for Arizona

What happened to the War on Poverty? Is the US marching backward?

Poster from Martin Luther King Jr. march. (Photo Credit: Pamela Powers)

With the remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy and the passing of Sargent Shriver, a foot soldier in the War on Poverty, this week, I have been read about the early 1960s and listening to speeches by King and President Lyndon B. Johnson.

A recurring theme in these speeches is the struggle to raise Americans out of poverty. In the early 1960s, 20% of Americans lived in poverty, according to National Public Radio (NPR). In his first State of the Union address—  47 years ago this month– Johnson declared the War on Poverty– just weeks after taking office following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

This administration today, here and now, declares an unconditional War on Poverty in America. It will not be a short or easy struggle. No single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won.

With this declaration, Johnson was continuing Kennedy’s legacy. The War on Poverty led to the creation of Johnson’s Great Society and the largest group of progressive social programs since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Many important Great Society programs– aimed at improving labor, healthcare, and education for poor and working class Americans– are still in existence: Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, student loans for college, work study, and Head Start.

The result was the poverty rate in the US declined from 20% to 11% by 1973– where it stayed for decades.

Under President Ronald Reagan, a revisionist view of economics became fashionable and the War on Poverty dropped off the national agenda. In its place, scapegoating of the poor became popular. There were rallying cries for small government and welfare reform to root out “welfare cheats.” Rather than educating the poor and helping them into the job market, trickle-down economics preached that giving tax cuts for the rich would allow for investment and the wealth would trickle-down to the masses.

The result of 30 years of trickle-down economics? The rich got richer; 80% of the total increase in income went to the richest 1%. The poor got poorer;  the number of Americans living below the poverty line rose from 1.7 million in 2008 to 47 million in 2011– 15.7% of the population. And the middle class is rapidly disappearing.

From NPR…

“When you have 1 in 7 Americans living in poverty. 1 in 5 children living in poverty — including 1 in 3 African-American children and Latino children — and it’s not on America’s radar, something’s very wrong.”

Indeed it is the shame of our nation that a record 47 million people now live below the poverty line — $22,400 for a family of four — and a stunning 1 in 3 Americans are living at less than twice that threshold. And yet we hear so little about this crisis in the mainstream media and Congress, where it seems off the radar not only for the GOP, but even for some of our progressive allies.

But the grim truth is that many of the same structural problems that are making life a struggle for the middle-class — and resulted in the first “economic recovery” in 2003-2007 where productivity rose, but median income declined and poverty worsened — are also leading to record numbers of poor people. From 1980 to 2005, more than 80 percent of the total increase in American incomes went to the richest 1 percent. Our economy is super-sizing the wealthy, while producing large quantities of low-wage jobs, unemployment and underemployment, and services are eroding.

From the Huffington Post…

The latest hunger report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows hunger remains at its highest levels in 15 years with 17.4 million households reporting having difficulty feeding their family due to lack of resources

From the New York Times…

Federal aid is being scaled back, even though growth is not yet robust enough to make a sizable dent in unemployment. Late last year, Republicans blocked the extension of a successful stimulus program that had created 250,000 subsidized jobs for young people and low-income parents. They claimed the stimulus was an expensive failure, even as they pressed to renew the high-end Bush tax cuts. As part of the tax-cut deal, President Obama and Congress agreed to extend federal jobless benefits in 2011, but the checks will be $25 less a week than under the stimulus. That reduction could push an estimated 175,000 more people into poverty in 2011. The deal also included a one-year payroll tax cut that will benefit most workers, but it is less helpful to the lowest-income workers than a now-expired tax break in the stimulus.

With 14.5 million people still out of work, and more than 6 million of them jobless for more than six months, reducing federal help now will almost ensure more poverty later. That would impose an even higher cost on the economy and budget because ever poorer households cannot spend and consume.

This is shameful: Poverty, hunger, joblessness, and home foreclosures are all running rampant in the US, and what is the government doing about it? Nothing. In fact, Republicans and Tea Partiers– now in control of the House of Representatives and many state legislature– want to lead America backward.

This week Republican and Tea Partiers in the US House of Representatives are wasting two days grandstanding about repeal of the Affordable Healthcare Act– which has already helped millions of Americans secure healthcare insurance.

On the state level, trickle-down economics is still king. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and the Arizona Legislature want to knock 280,000 Arizonans off of the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS) or eliminate AHCCCS (the state’s Medicaid system) altogether. What happens to these poor people when they lose their health insurance coverage? They’re not going to magically disappear. They will delay treatment and either die on the street or go to emergency rooms– thus increasing the cost of treatment, not to mention increasing suffering. Brewer also proposes slashing university and community college budgets, which will most likely raise tuitions– again– and put a college education further from reach for low- and middle-income residents.

Arizona and other states also are attacking the unions. As a right to work state, union membership in Arizona is already very low. Without the power of organized labor to negotiate wages and benefits, multinational corporations will push wages to historic lows.

The altruistic War on Poverty announced in 1964 seems like a wistful dream now. Today, in its place, conservative politicians are waging a War on the Workers and the Poor.

What happened to the War on Poverty? It was no match for trickle-down economics.

7 comments on “What happened to the War on Poverty? Is the US marching backward?

  1. tiponeill
    January 19, 2011

    The Southern Strategy has served the Republicans (but not the Republic) well.


  2. lrate
    January 19, 2011

    It’s a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way….*
    What is really suprising is merely that the media, and Americans in general just seem to be waking up to the fact that U.S. citizens, and workers of the world are at war with the super-rich. [PS: Our way is about freedom of choice and fair value for products & services, NOT price-couging, profiteering, usury, slavery, and  other forms of extreme greed.]


  3. Lipschitz
    January 19, 2011

    It’s still a war, just from the other direction.


  4. Clement R Knorr
    January 19, 2011

    The “war on poverty” was cooked up by LBJ and his cronies as a response to the riots and civil unrerest that were stalking the USA during the Viet Nam War era.  The Left’s answer to every problem has been “Throw tons of cash at at a problem and it will go away.” More than a trillion dollars later, proverty is likely on the increase.  Money does not address the core issues: Work ethic, parenting, discipline, motivation and such..  Just look at the large number of immigrants from Mexico, Africa, the West Indies and Haiti, who have come to America with nothing, yet quickly were able to enter the middle class.  Why?  Because they work.  They work very hard!


  5. steven
    January 20, 2011

    The numbers that are thrown out should be thrown out. The more you can claim in poverty the bigger your government budget gets. I would go on with the real story but lets just say, Why is everyone in the World trying to get here?


  6. Pingback: With millions of Americans unemployed: Why doesn’t Congress care? (video) - Tucson Progressive

  7. Pingback: Poverty by the Numbers Report Reveals a Cruel Nation | Tucson Progressive

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The Tucson Progressive: Pamela Powers Hannley

I stand on the side of Love. I believe in kindness to all creatures on Earth and the inherent self-worth of all individuals--not just people who agree with me or look like me.

Widespread economic and social injustice prompted me to become a candidate for the Arizona House, representing Legislative District 9 in the 2016 election. My platform focuses on economic reforms to grow Arizona's economy, establish a state-based public bank, fix our infrastructure, fully fund public education, growlocal small businesses and community banks, and put people back to work at good-paying jobs. I also stand for equal rights, choice, and paycheck fairness for women. I am running as a progressive and running clean.

My day job is managing editor for the American Journal of Medicine, an academic medicine journal with a worldwide circulation. In addition, my husband and I co-direct Arizonans for a New Economy, Arizona's public banking initiative. I am a member of the national board of the Public Banking Institute, and I am co-chair of the Arizona Democratic Progressive Caucus, the largest caucus of the Arizona Democratic Party.

I am a published author, photographer, videographer, clay artist, mother, nana, and wife. I have a bachelor's degree in journalism from Ohio State University and a masters in public health from the University of Arizona. I grew up in Amherst, Ohio, but I have lived in Tucson, Arizona since 1981. I am a proud member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson and the Public Relations Society of America.

My Tucson Progressive blog and Facebook page feature large doses of liberal ideas, local, state, and national politics, and random bits of humor. I also blog at Blog for Arizona and the Huffington Post.

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