Turning the War on Poverty into a War on the Poor

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Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, writing in the Chicago Tribune, has declared the War on Poverty a failure and is demanding that a new course be set. The approach that he takes to the problem runs parallel to that of much of his party, as the 2016 budget passed by the Republican Congress illustrates.

Bush writes:

“Trouble is, from the War on Poverty to the persistence of liberal big city mayors, the same government programs have been in place for over a half-century — and they have failed. We have spent trillions of dollars in the War on Poverty, and poverty not only persists, it is as intractable as ever. This represents a broken promise. And it feeds the anger of Baltimore.”

The premise of that argument is profoundly silly, and an apt comparison will help explain why: We could just as easily point out that since the end of the Cold War, we have spent some $12 trillion on national defense. Yet despite all that money and all the debt we’ve incurred in spending it, our enemies not only persist, like poverty they are intractable as ever.

Does that mean those defense programs have failed, that we have lost the War on War? By Bush’s logic, apparently so.

Poverty, like national security, is not a problem that can be “solved.” It is an ongoing obligation of a country that likes to think of itself as the most prosperous on the planet, and the growing divide between rich and poor makes it more pressing, not less. Furthermore, the “War on Poverty” is not a failure when tens of millions of Americans have a decent place to live when they would otherwise not have one, when they have food on the table when they would otherwise have gone hungry, when they have heat in the winter when they would otherwise have suffered in the cold.

We certainly should not replace the War on Poverty with a War on the Poor, which is essentially what Bush and others seem to advocate.

Because at one level, poverty is an inescapable function of simple math. At any given moment, the American economy produces X number of decent, good-paying jobs with benefits such as health care. The number of Americans wanting and needing those jobs is X plus Y. The premise of conservative theory on the question seems to be that by cutting government benefits for those in the Y group, we will either improve their moral character or heighten their economic desperation, and either way, that will make more good jobs appear.

It will not. There is no conceivable mechanism by which increased economic desperation among the poor produces an increase in the number of available decent-paying jobs, and it is political alchemy to suggest otherwise.

In the comments above, Bush also makes reference to the “persistence of big-city liberal mayors” as part of the problem. That too is a strange comment to make. As a rule, big cities are run by Democrats. That includes troubled cities such as Baltimore, Newark and Detroit. It also includes extremely prosperous cities such as New York and Boston as well as major cities that are the heart and soul of red-state economies:

The mayor of Dallas is a Democrat. The mayor of Phoenix is a Democrat. The mayor of Houston is a Democrat. The mayor of Salt Lake City is a Democrat. The mayor of Charlotte is a Democrat. The mayor of Tampa is a Democrat. And on and on and on. And in every one of those places the jobless rate is well below the national average and per capita income well above the national average.

Conversely, much of rural America is in terrible economic and social straits, and those rural counties and communities tend to be run by Republicans. Can the problems of rural America — the high unemployment, the meth crisis, the lack of opportunity, the population loss — thus be blamed on failed Republican leadership? Or are they more accurately and fairly described as the consequence of profound historic and economic trends that no local government is capable of resolving?

Yeah. Well the same is true of some of our troubled cities. The gutting of American industry through globalization and technology has stripped former industrial giants of the blue-collar jobs that once sustained them and has left their workforces stranded, with little hope. And in many cases, those trapped in poverty in places such as Baltimore are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who fled the rural South in the Great Migration, and who thus never got a real footing in the modern world before it collapsed around them.

In times of rapid change, those with the least education and fewest financial resources are always the most vulnerable and least adaptable. It’s not a matter of character, it’s a matter of fact. To cite just one illustration, some 25 percent of American homes today have no Internet access. Among black households, it’s 34 percent; among households with incomes of $25,000 or less, it’s 51 percent.

If you’re a child raised in such a home, what are your chances of competing in a 21st century economy? Oh, a few will get out. If you’re extraordinarily lucky, gifted and hardworking, you have a chance to overcome those obstacles, although the odds are still long even if you have all three.  For many, day-to-day survival is as high as they dare to aim.

Here’s something else Bush said in his op-ed:

“If our government leaders want to attack poverty, they should first acknowledge that an effective anti-poverty program is a strong family, led by two parents. The evidence on this is incontrovertible. And conservatives should not be afraid to say that as the family breaks down, so does opportunity. Our goal should be to build up families.”

That is absolutely true, but in an important sense it is also absolutely irrelevant. Because once we’ve all acknowledged the importance of a two-parent household — and it is very important — what changes? What policy decisions flow from that acknowledgement? The answer is generally none — it certainly is in Bush’s explanation. The observation serves no apparent function except to establish the moral superiority of those who make it.

Two other points:

1.) Over the last generation, the decline of the two-parent family has slowed considerably. In 1997, according to census data, 68.4 percent of American children lived in two-parent households; in 2014, 64 percent did so. Other indicators, such as the divorce rate and the rate of teen birth, have actually reversed themselves and improved significantly. So it’s not as bad as some would have you believe.

2.) The social, cultural, economic and even technological drivers behind the overall decline of marriage are deep and complex (and none of them has anything to do with gay marriage). The notion that such a broad-based historical trend — appearing in every Western industrialized nation — is being driven to any large degree by government policies, or can be reversed by different government policies, vastly overestimates government’s power. The fact that such beliefs about the power of government are held most strongly by anti-government conservatives is more than a little ironic.

And that’s really the key. What we’re dealing with are extremely complex social, economic and cultural phenomena. Government did not create them; government probably cannot reverse them. Government can only respond to them, mitigate them, soften them. It is a reactive force, a compensating force. If you’re expecting it to be a transformative force, it will fail in that goal every time.

And if government does not respond, soften, mitigate and compensate, if instead the decision is to let the American people feel the full brunt of changes of truly historic magnitude, well, then things will certainly get interesting.

 

Reader Comments 0

877 comments
juliainatlanta
juliainatlanta

the thing about the Bushes, they do not mind spending billions of dollars on wars.  just not for anything which might in even some small measure benefit those among us who are less fortunate.  but, hey, they're all good Christians.  right.

UncleLeo
UncleLeo

@juliainatlanta Another comment from an uneducated democrat. These Bookman threads provide endless comedic material.

TGT88
TGT88

"[T]he average poverty rate in the historical core municipalities in the 52 largest U.S. metro areas remains at 24.1 percent, more than double the 11.7 percent rate in suburban areas."


Sounds like "much of rural America" is doing much better than liberal America.

TGT88
TGT88

What's more, "according to USC’s Luke Phillips, states like New York, Massachusetts, California and Illinois spend almost twice as much on welfare payments than do states like North Carolina, Texas, or Florida, both in terms of GDP and state spending. Yet the best results for African Americans in our Center for Opportunity Urbanism study were found overwhelmingly in the former Confederacy, states generally not well known for their generosity to the poor or interest in racial redress."

IReportYouWhine#1
IReportYouWhine#1

Apparently, the only thing the government  "takes care of" is itself.


You do realize this column was based on half century of failure, right?

jezel
jezel

@IReportYouWhine#1 Yea you are right about the government taking care of itself. Would not say the Great Society programs were a total failure. Some people did not starve and some did advance.


Some how we have to figure out a way to raise minimum wage so a married couple can survive and raise kids. There is enough wealth in America to make this happen. Who ever figures it out should be made a KING. But as Americans we do have to figure it out.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

To TD, below:


The church cannot take care of all of society's needs.  That is simply a rightwing talking point that sounds good.  What we need are government support and charitable organizations such as churches working in harmony.


I suppose I need to keep repeating that the War on Poverty essentially died when Lyndon Johnson died.  The statement that it has lasted for 40 or 50 years is false.

JKLtwo
JKLtwo

@gotalife Nazi's are big government people (obama does a pretty good Hitler imitation).  Sorry but they are still on the left.

JKLtwo
JKLtwo

@gotalife holder and obama say,"What?"


Demwits luvs them sum fast and furious!

gotalife
gotalife

The house will vote to ban abortions.



Same ole rw bs.

barkingfrog
barkingfrog

Just how do the supporters of two parent families intend to make that happen ?


td1234
td1234

@barkingfrog It will never happen until both Conservatives and Progressives admit that it is a problem that needs a solution. 


If that ever happens then specific solutions but the general approach would be to give incentives for outcomes that society believes is in the best interest of the nation and to at least ridicule actions that society believes is not good. 

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@td1234 


Too mechanistic.  Does not work with real live people, in their real life daily existence. Solutions to the problems of poverty which reflect compassion work better with helping real people improve their lots than does treating them like Pavlov's dogs.

JayBook
JayBook moderator

@td1234 @barkingfrog 

So it's your theory that the folks in Baltimore, for example, are going to respond to tax incentives?

Captain-Obvious
Captain-Obvious

@JayBook @td1234 @barkingfrog Businesses might, if the taxes are targeted and sufficient enough to move them back into those neighborhoods. Then you get jobs, which moves people up, which pays more personal and property taxes which better finance schools.

You know.

Business 101.

td1234
td1234

@JayBook Not said by me. How about incentives like more short term welfare if you are married? How about married poor couples get first choice when housing comes available or are the first contacted when jobs come available? Rewarding behavior that you are looking for. 


Kind of like if a parent on welfare comes to a school conference (which is currently required but not enforced) you could change the law that they get a $25 bonus for that month or if a parent reads with their child or comes to the extra tutoring sessions then they get more benefits for that month. 

td1234
td1234

@JayBook Do you reward your children when they do not do their chores? Do you reward your children when they make bad grades in school or take actions that you do not approve of? 


Do you reward them when they get good reports from school or exceed your expectations at school, at home or in the public? Do you praise them for making the right choices equally to when they make bad choices? 


I worked for DFCS when Michael Thurmond was the director and right after Welfare reform was implemented and he made a speech in which he stated (paraphrase) that the poor will not become successful without people pushing them in the right direction to becoming self sufficient. Do you disagree with his philosophical statement? 

Nick_Danger
Nick_Danger

@td1234 @JayBook 

"How about married poor couples get first choice when housing comes available or are the first contacted when jobs come available?"

Socialism!  Government control!

td1234
td1234

@MaryElizabethSings As exemplified in a failed 50 year experiment called the "great society". 


If you believe what you just said then the answer cannot be to expand government because government cannot give the compassion you are talking about. Your solution is better suited for the Church's and other charitable organizations. 

barkingfrog
barkingfrog

Wars do not generally completely destroy the enemy, they make the enemy less

destructive and from that standpoint the war on poverty is a success.

SwamiDave
SwamiDave

The "War on War" (or National Security / Defense) is not an activity undertaken by government because it is "winnable".  It is undertaken because it is a Constitutional role of government.  Transfer payments attempting to equalize outcomes (aka "War on Poverty") are not.


In the end, the solutions to these problems are completely known and have been for a while.  Statistically, an intact, two-parent household led by two parents who finished their education before starting that household that has engagement within a community (faith, social, etc) produces the best outcomes.


Success and opportunity are in most cases the outcomes of decisions that lead to them.  


-SD    

Kamchak
Kamchak

@SwamiDave 

Success and opportunity are in most cases the outcomes of decisions that lead to them. 

Got proof?

td1234
td1234

@CommonSenseisntCommon And yet you are one of the people that keep telling us that we have to allow all the illegals to stay and more to come because they fill jobs. Oh the irony. 

stefpe
stefpe

@SwamiDave So what - we should make it illegal to have kids until you're married and have finished school?

TBS
TBS

@CommonSenseisntCommon @td1234 

Well when some have the habit of spewing canned talking points of what they want people to have said vs what someone actually said you usually get what you just received......... A bunch of nothingness attributed to you.

LogicalDude
LogicalDude

@td1234 @CommonSenseisntCommon Companies welcomed those illegals with cheap jobs where companies wouldn't have to pay market rate or benefits.  


Gee, thanks companies for doing this to Americans who should have gotten those jobs. 

TBS
TBS

@LogicalDude @td1234 @CommonSenseisntCommon 

And the demand still remains hence the continued supply.

Funny how some who love to talk about supply and demand don't see it that way when it comes to illegal immigrants.

Some of the very ones who are talking big about deporting all these folks directly or indirectly are part of the demand curve via the products and services they purchase. 

They need to start looking in the mirror because they are part of the problem that they decry. 

Bruno2
Bruno2

Since the topic is poverty, in case some of you were unaware, one of our blogmates, Elgrunir, is in a bad way right now.  If anyone has a few dollars to spare, please get in touch with me or JamVet offline.

Bruno2
Bruno2

To those who can help: We're doing things informally now in trying to preserve his privacy and dignity.  Please feel free to ask Jay for my email address if you have a few spare dollars.


JamVet
JamVet

@Bruno2 

Thanks, my friend.

But for the grace of God...

TBS
TBS

@Bruno2 

Do either of you have a paypal account set up?

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@Bruno2 


Tell Elgrunir that I am thinking of him and praying for a better future for him, Bruno, please.  Tell him not to give up.  Thanks.

CommonSenseisntCommon
CommonSenseisntCommon

@Bruno2 will do


but should we trust a Republican to not take all the profits LOL J/K


tell him I am thinking about him