Daily Beast Writer Insists 'War on Poverty Worked'

Fifty years after it was first waged by LBJ, the federal War on Poverty has worked, and not only that, it's been a "wild success," the Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky is insisting.

Great, that being the case, we can de-mobilize and drastically cut back spending on social welfare, right? Heaven forbid! No, Tomasky wants to double-down with efforts at tackling "income inequality." Of course, along the way he insists that things under Republican presidents -- but particularly Reagan -- were absolutely dreadful for the lowest-income earners in American society (emphasis mine):


Our problem is when conservatives like Rubio talk gibberish: “Isn’t it time to declare big government’s war on poverty a failure?” No, it isn’t. It’s high time to say the war on poverty was a success. A wild success, indeed, by nearly every meaningful measure. But no one thinks so, and a big part of the reason is that most Democrats are afraid to say so. They’d damn well better start. If we’re really going to be raising the minimum wage and tackling inequality, someone needs to be willing to say to the American people that these kinds of approaches get results.

You may have seen the big Times piece Sunday that looked back over the half-century war on poverty, kicked off by Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 State of the Union address. The article noted that in terms of health and nutrition and numerous other factors, the poor in the United States are immeasurably less immiserated today than they were then. But it did lead by saying the overall poverty rate in all that time has dropped only from 19 to 15 percent, suggesting to the casual reader that all these billions for five decades haven’t accomplished much.

What’s wrong with thinking is that we have not, of course, been fighting any kind of serious war on poverty for five decades. We fought it with truly adequate funding for about one decade. Less, even. Then the backlash started, and by 1981, Ronald Reagan’s government was fighting a war on the war on poverty. The fate of many anti-poverty programs has ebbed and flowed ever since.

But at the beginning, in the ’60s, those programs were fully funded, or close. And what happened? According to Joseph Califano, who worked in the Johnson White House, “the portion of Americans living below the poverty line dropped from 22.2 percent to 12.6 percent, the most dramatic decline over such a brief period in this century.” That’s a staggering 43 percent reduction. In six years.

The war on poverty then lost steam in the 1970s. Some of that was Johnson’s fault—money that might have been spent fighting poverty was diverted to bombing and shooting the Vietnamese. Some of it was the fault of liberal rhetoric. Johnson and others would speak of eradicating poverty, and of course eradicating poverty is impossible, and when it didn’t happen, conservatives were able to say, “See?” (Democrats ought to have learned their lesson along these lines; Barack Obama made a similar mistake in 2009, vowing that the stimulus would keep the jobless rate under 8.5 percent.) And so the public started electing politicians who told them poverty couldn’t be cured by government but only by pulling up one’s bootstraps and friending Jesus more aggressively.

So Tomasky admits that utopian liberal Democrats overpromised and under delivered, but he still puts faith in "full funding" of the "war on poverty," suggesting that significantly ameliorating destitution in United States is largely a function of how much federal money is pumped out at the problem.

And while Tomasky all but admits what Jesus told his disciples to be true -- "the poor will always be with you" -- he failed to take a stab at, for example, what is an acceptable "natural" poverty level which is politically acceptable in a free society. Because wealth and poverty are a relative measure, there's always going to be "the poor" among us.

Obviously a desirable social aim and more sensible policy, therefore, is to lift the living standard of the entire population, something that government redistribution schemes fail miserably at but which free market capitalism has wildly succeeded in doing.

After all, the working poor in the United States have an incredibly high standard of living compared with even the richest of Americans centuries ago and certainly with the middle class if not wealthy of many Third World countries today, judging by data from the Census Bureau As my colleague Terry Jeffrey at NewsBusters sister site CNSNews.com reported last September (emphasis mine):

Americans who live in households whose income is below the federal “poverty” level typically have cell phones (as well as landline phones), computers, televisions, video recorders, air conditioning, refrigerators, gas or electric stoves, and washers and dryers and microwaves, according to a newly released report from the Census Bureau.

In fact, 80.9 percent of households below the poverty level have cell phones, and a healthy majority—58.2 percent—have computers.

Fully 96.1 percent of American households in “poverty” have a television to watch, and 83.2 percent of them have a video-recording device in case they cannot get home in time to watch the football game or their favorite television show and they want to record it for watching later.

Refrigerators (97.8 percent), gas or electric stoves (96.6 percent) and microwaves (93.2 percent) are standard equipment in the homes of Americans in "poverty."

More than 83 percent have air-conditioning.

Interestingly, the appliances surveyed by the Census Bureau that households in poverty are least likely to own are dish washers (44.9 percent) and food freezers (26.2 percent).

However, most Americans in “poverty” do not need to go to a laundromat. According to the Census Bureau, 68.7 percent of households in poverty have a clothes washer and 65.3 percent have a clothes dryer.

The estimates on the percentage of households in poverty that have these appliances were derived by the Census Bureau from its Survey of Income and Program Participation. The latest report on this survey, released this month, published data collected in 2011.

But Tomasky's aim is to promote bigger, more activist government which aims to redistribute the wealth created and allocated by private exchange, not to address poverty per se, and so in closing he counsels Democrats:

If we are entering a new phase of fighting a war on inequality, Americans need to know some facts about the last war that firmly support the view that the effort and resources have done far more good than harm. The Democrats just have to be willing—and proud—to say it and say it and say it.

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