Fifty years ago President Lyndon Johnson, in his State of the Union address, declared an “unconditional war on poverty.” Last night, President Obama took the same stage once again to highlight the tragedy of poverty perpetuated by obscene and corrosive inequalities. Given the half century between these speeches, it would be easy to conclude, as President Reagan did already in 1988, that the war on poverty is over and, as he put it, “poverty won.” But that’s the problem with persistent and complex challenges: we’re too easily tempted to buy into the stories that let us off the hook.
We tell ourselves a story in America that we are a people who have built our country on hard work, individual responsibility, and independence, that we are a people of faith in a God who rewards good effort, the best outcome for which is a materially comfortable life. Government should be small; and the free market solves problems best.
So when we talk about poverty and income inequality, it’s not uncommon to hear complaints about parents simply needing to take responsibility for hungry kids, or for their own health care, and about how we shouldn’t have to subsidize others who can’t find work. On top of that, it’s easy to buy into the idea that with a record number of people now living in poverty, government programs to stop it are a waste of taxpayer money.
Such simplistic views are fodder for anti-government politicians who love to perpetuate them. In her response to the State of the Union address, Representative Cathy McMorris Rogers depicted herself as a woman who once worked at McDonalds but who now works in the U.S. Capital. She touted a vision where the free market, not the government, empowers you out of poverty. Her story might fit the American vision, but she might also want to talk to fast food workers who now strike for better pay and who aren’t, without government assistance, able to afford the college degree and executive M.B.A. that she got. Many people are so disadvantaged that a fast food job is the best they can hope for, despite their efforts. The fact is, the free market alone keeps them in poverty. She might want to see if corporations and wealthy individuals receiving subsidies would be interested in a free market without government assistance too.
The problem with many views like hers is that they’re not rooted in reality. First, many anti-poverty programs actually work. A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, using updated assessment techniques, found that between 1967 and 2012, poverty would have risen 6 percent without government programs. In 2012, they reduced child poverty by 12 percent, and without them, deep child poverty rates would be as high as 20 percent during economic downturns, as opposed to the 4 percent to 6 percent rates we observe with government programs. Food and nutrition programs have been especially effective in reducing poverty.
Second, poverty is not simply a matter of individual responsibility. One of the greatest determinants of an individual’s poverty is being born into it. Children who receive poor nutrition and education, who are born with fetal alcohol syndrome or into violent households are often trapped in a cycle of poverty with no way out. Forty-two percent of food stamp recipients in Montana are children.
Third, we have a moral responsibility to end poverty. The obligation to love the neighbor and alleviate suffering is central to the religious traditions in our American story too. And some problems cannot be tackled through individual charity or the free market alone. Poverty is one of them. The problem is not, as President Reagan suggested, that poverty has won the war. The problem is that we didn’t fight hard enough.
There is no moral defense for policies that suppress the minimum wage and cut food stamps, unemployment benefits, and other programs that alleviate the suffering of the poor. It is even more obscene to do so while touting tax breaks and policies that benefit primarily the wealthy and large corporations, while actually doing little to create jobs. It is time to hold politicians who support such misguided policies responsible. We might start by electing fewer millionaires, and more people who truly understand the complex reality of poverty.
The solutions are in front of us. They include not only food stamps and raising the minimum wage, but also innovative programs like expanded pre-kindergarten education and the Nurse-Family Partnership.
So let us not slouch back onto simple stories about how the poverty of others is not our responsibility and merely fosters dependency, how it can be solved by the free market or individual effort, or how it can’t be defeated at all. Let us resolve instead to support the programs, public and private, that will enable a future President to declare that the war on poverty has been won.
This is Mark Hanson, guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.