America recently marked an important milestone. Jan. 8 was the 50th anniversary of the declaration of war on poverty. This event has intensified an ongoing debate about the federal government’s role in supporting society’s least affluent members.
In his 1964 inaugural address, President Lyndon Johnson stated “this administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join me in this effort. It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we will not rest until that war is won.”
And America did respond. In the months following that speech, the federal government created a series of important programs including Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start, Job Corps, a permanent food stamp program, VISTA and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
The extent of the progress made during the ensuing five decades is the subject of considerable debate but no one, regardless of political beliefs, argues that significant battles were not won.
Poverty in America today is still rampant: 15 percent, more than 46 million people, live in poverty (less than $24,000 annual income for a family of four); 7 percent, 22 million people, live in deep poverty (less than $12,000 annual income for a family of four); 22 percent of our children, more than 16 million, live in poverty; and 38 percent of our African-American children and 34 percent of our Hispanic children live in poverty.
Conversations about government’s response to poverty have been exacerbated by two more recent trends. One is the increasingly skewed distribution of wealth toward the rich. The other is the increasing difficulty achieving in social mobility (the bettering one’s absolute and relative economic position).
The combination of these three issues has provided political fodder to all parts of the political spectrum, each playing to its bases, reiterating its traditional positions.
We have learned several lessons since 1964. Perhaps the most important is that fighting poverty is not only the right thing to do but is also the smart thing to do. In an increasingly competitive and interconnected world, survival depends on the stability and productivity of the whole. Another lesson is that responses to poverty cannot be simple. A single focus — whether on education or minimum wage or job training — will not yield long- term and widespread results. A third is that responses must be long-term. Poverty, in many cases, is deep seeded, requiring sustained efforts.
It is highly unlikely that the federal government can develop and implement effective new programs. It is bogged down in partisanship too extreme to come to agreement on the components. In addition, the federal government is too unwieldy to effectively mount large-scale operations. And public support, required for efforts of this kind, would be unlikely. Poll after poll tells us that the American people have little faith in the federal government’s motives and effectiveness (particularly on domestic issues).
But one possible effective response does exist: giving each state the funds to develop its own programs. The advantages are threefold. One, each state can tailor the programs to meet its specific needs, serving diverse populations and issues. Two, this will produce a variety of solutions that can inform one another. Three, this kind of response can garner public support: Polls clearly show that while the public has little faith in the federal government, they do trust state and local governments. Any such initiative would require combined federal, state and local understanding, cooperation and investment.
The war on poverty must continue. As President Johnson said in his inaugural address, “The richest nation on earth can afford to win it (the war on poverty). We cannot afford to lose it.” But in 2014 and beyond, the answer lies with the states.