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Assessing ‘War on Poverty’

LBJ launched massive effort 50 years ago

Published: Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT
Caption
Lyndon B. Johnson 1908-1973 "For the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty," LBJ said in 1964.

Earlier this month – Jan. 8 – marked the 50th birthday of Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” and it should surprise next to no one that both parties are trying to exploit the issue in their own unique if predictable ways, not just because they care in ways large or small about the plight of the poor but because ... well, did we mention that 2014 is an election year?

Where more than a few conservatives and Republicans are concerned, LBJ’s Great Society has been an abysmal failure, creating a crippling dependence on government while defining America’s slide into socialism, as evidenced by a record number of poor Americans, nearly 47 million.

The poor, they argue, are worse off than they were in 1964, and middle class taxpayers are, too.

More than a few liberals and Democrats would beg to differ, arguing that given the nation’s population growth – 125 million – the percentage of poor in fact has dropped in the past 50 years.

Poverty is a relative thing, with America’s poor far better off, for the most part, than their counterparts around the world.

For them, the programs created and/or expanded in the context of LBJ’s War on Poverty – Head Start, food stamps, unemployment compensation, Medicaid, etc. – have been a critical safety net and a lifeline that has put millions who otherwise wouldn’t have had a prayer over the top.

There is an element of truth in what both sides have to say, as well as an element of self-serving, vote-counting nonsense.

From this vantage, Republicans have a steeper hill to climb in mounting the pedestal inscribed “Pals of the Poor,” especially following a 2012 presidential election in which their nominee expressed contempt for the so-called “47 percent” of Americans he considered “takers” rather than “makers.”

Since then, the party has sought significant cuts in programs that serve the underprivileged, such as food stamps.

There’s some validity in the old saw that teaching a man to fish is far preferable in the long run to giving him a fish to eat, but when you balk at funding even for job training programs, it starts to ring hollow.

Conversely, while Democrats may think they have the market cornered on compassion, GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has a point when he says that “while we have programs in place that help deal with the pain of poverty, they don’t deal with the structural problems” that perpetuate it, such as the dramatic rise in single-parent families.

Let’s face it, economic pain also can be self-inflicted. And sometimes Democrats can be generous, nonjudgmental, and forgiving to a fault, their apparent answer to every problem to just throw more of other people’s money at it while asking little or nothing of those on the receiving end.

As such, they open themselves to the charge of the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” to steal a phrase once used by George W. Bush.

When LBJ said 50 years ago that “for the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty,” at least he had noble, if naive, intentions. We’re not so confident those laudable impulses still exist.

 

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