Fifty Years on the So-Called War on Poverty

widemodern_homeless_110513620x413Having just completed fifty years in the Lyndon B. Johnson War on Poverty, I do not see a lot of fanfare for this particular war. No country songs. No gripping 24/7 wall-to-wall patriot bombs. No graphs by CNN displaying the wonders of the Poverty Bomb on leveling economic inequality bunkers.

This may be partly because our media fixation is on the sensationalized and geared towards violence-as-entertainment. Of course Poverty is a concept while The War on Terror – though also a concept – can really be interpreted as The War on People Who Kinda Look Like They Could’ve Blown Up the Twin Towers. And for that, we have automated remote-controlled flying robots of death that could be run by a Bluth brother.

Despite all of these reasons for the un-sexiness of the War on Poverty, we must also consider that the WoP was never ever an actual war on actual poverty. There was no plan to end poverty. That would take some planning that Lyndon Johnson and the US Congress of neither fifty years ago nor now are willing to deal with. An ACTUAL War on Poverty would probably look a little too much like Karl Marx for a nation and a government deathly afraid of Red (remember that Martin Luther King, Jr. was hounded by the FBI for suspected communism).

What we have is an effectual reduction on the effects of poverty, and one that was highly successful in reducing poverty rolls by forty percent during the first six years. But then the economic conservative backlash began in the 1970’s. And then the tie-in between anti-poverty programs and anti-Black sentiment was lashed with Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” racist myth, forever burnishing welfare with negative connotations while continuing the horrible lies that black men and women are “lazy” and “entitled.” And so the minor-key War on Poverty is being slashed time and again even now, when the Republican-led House is trying to further reduce SNAP (food stamp) benefits and do-away with extended unemployment insurance (UI) benefits at a time when un- and underemployment are as much of an issue as ever before.

In terms of commemorating the anniversary, however, I did see this from Republican Congressperson James Lankford from Oklahoma:

This week is the 50 year anniversary of “The War on Poverty.” Our nation has spent trillions of dollars to fight poverty, but most programs have no evaluation to determine if they help or hurt those in poverty. I have a bill that would require basic metrics on every program so we can determine what helps and what is just waste. It is time we fight for the families and children’s future, not just send them a check and call it compassion.

What Lankford means here is not that we don’t have any means to test the cost-benefit analysis. No. Food stamps, unemployment insurance and the like actually have great benefit to the economy and to the structure of the US.

Actually, both SNAP and UI are the best modes to stimulate the US economy. Study after study have shown that expanding necessary government funds to the poor is a tremendous stimulus to the US economy. Economist Mark Zandi from Moody’s explained this to CNN:

In findings echoed by other economists and studies, he said the study shows the fastest way to infuse money into the economy is through expanding the food-stamp program. For every dollar spent on that program $1.73 is generated throughout the economy, he said.

“If someone who is literally living paycheck to paycheck gets an extra dollar, it’s very likely that they will spend that dollar immediately on whatever they need – groceries, to pay the telephone bill, to pay the electric bill,” he said.

That infused dollar has an immediate lateral and beneficial position. New products are bought, employees are hired, tax monies are spent. This in contrast to tax benefits for the wealthy wherein the monies are just… collecting dust (and occasionally “trickling down”). Is this not good enough for Lankford?

So, if the fact that money spent in welfare has a 170% Return-on-Investment isn’t good enough for Lankford and other conservatives, what actually do they want to measure? They offer more jobs than those put together by giving Jamie Dimon more entitlements. I’m thinking that his rubric is tied into the maximum amount of suffering the poor will continue to abide by until they revolt. It’s kind of a conservative fail-safe – it’s certainly how the Koch-led ideologists govern these days.

Maintaining the status quo isn’t good enough – make them suffer!

What do you think Lankford wants to measure in regards to War on Poverty programs? Personally, I think he may have typo’d and meant to say “It is time we fight for the families and children’s future.” Huzzah!


When he’s not riding both his city’s public transit system and evil mayor, Jasdye teaches at a community college and writes about the intersection of equality and faith - with an occasional focus on Chicago - at the Left Cheek blog and on the Left Cheek: the Blog Facebook page. Check out more from Jasdye in his archives as well!


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