Grassroots /Hank Kalet

Redeclaring the War on Poverty

The United States is the richest nation in the world. With a gross domestic product – the sum of all goods and services produced – of about $15.7 trillion, only the European Union can boast a larger economy and only a handful of nations — and only after government transfer payments and services are factored in — can boast as much accumulated wealth per capita as the United States.

Nearly one in six Americans live in poverty. According to federal estimates, there are 46.5 million Americans – 15% of the population – living below the federal poverty threshold, a figure that many who study poverty view as outdated, too low and likely to undercount the number of Americans living in dire economic circumstances.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Fifty years ago, in his first speech to Congress as president, Lyndon B. Johnson “declare(d) unconditional war on poverty in America.”

His goal, he said in the Jan. 8, 1964, speech, was to marshal federal, state and local forces to “help that one-fifth of all American families with incomes too small to even meet their basic needs.” Using Roosevelt’s New Deal as a model, Johnson promised job training, national service and redevelopment programs. He promised direct assistance and jobs to those in need, as well as housing and medical-care programs, better schools in what he repeatedly referred to as an all-out assault designed not to ameliorate poverty “but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.”

“Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom,” he said. “The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.

“But whatever the cause, our joint Federal-local effort must pursue poverty, pursue it wherever it exists—in city slums and small towns, in sharecropper shacks or in migrant worker camps, on Indian Reservations, among whites as well as Negroes, among the young as well as the aged, in the boom towns and in the depressed areas.”

The results, 50 years later, are not so great.  There have been successes – Medicare and Medicaid, the food stamp program – which have prevented poverty from being much worse, especially among seniors – but the cost of living has skyrocketed while the incomes of those at the margins has not. While the official poverty rate is a third lower than it was in 1964, that figure is deceiving. As NPR reported in 2012, one in three Americans are surviving on less than $50,000 a year, which is not enough to cover basic costs.

Take the example of Mitchell County, N.C. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s “Living Wage Calculator,” which was designed to estimate the “wage rate required to meet minimum standards of living” across the country, says that a family of four – with one adult and three children – would need to earn more than $59,000 annually, or nearly $29 per hour, to cover necessary expenses.

And what are the expenses? They include a $749 monthly food bill (less than $200 a week for a family of four), $1,138 for childcare, $376 for medical care and $799 for housing. Then add in transportation, clothing and other incidentals, and taxes. This is a pretty basic, no-frills budget and it still requires the average single mother with three kids to earn $29 an hour to stay afloat in a county where the median wages for most jobs are significantly lower.

There are a lot of reasons for the failure of Johnson’s war – some of his own making, most tied to the right-wing and corporate backlashes we have been living through for much of the last 40 years, one that involved blaming the poor and pretending that charity could step in when the larger society refused.

Johnson was right 50 years ago. Our willingness to allow millions in the world’s richest nation to live hand to mouth, never being sure whether there will be enough food to get to the next day, is shameful. We have a responsibility to each other, collectively, to ensure a minimum quality of life for everyone. Johnson’s framework may have been flawed – like Roosevelt’s New Deal, it sought to address the issue without causing much pain to the larger capitalist system – but his goal was valiant. We need to redeclare his war on poverty and be honest about what it must entail – an attack on the corporate order and a reconfiguration of our economy along more egalitarian lines.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. Email; blog

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2014

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