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Robert Rector: How the War on Poverty Was Lost

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Fifty years and $20 trillion later, LBJ’s goal to help the poor become self-supporting has failed.

By: Robert Rector

On Jan. 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson used his State of the Union address to announce an ambitious government undertaking. “This administration today, here and now,” he thundered, “declares unconditional war on poverty in America.”

Fifty years later, we’re losing that war. Fifteen percent of Americans still live in poverty, according to the official census poverty report for 2012, unchanged since the mid-1960s. Liberals argue that we aren’t spending enough money on poverty-fighting programs, but that’s not the problem. In reality, we’re losing the war on poverty because we have forgotten the original goal, as LBJ stated it half a century ago: “to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities.”

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President Johnson, promoting a new campaign to help the poor, visits sharecropper William David Marlow and his family on a farm near Rocky Mount, N.C., in May 1964. Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

The federal government currently runs more than 80 means-tested welfare programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care and targeted social services to poor and low-income Americans. Government spent $916 billion on these programs in 2012 alone, and roughly 100 million Americans received aid from at least one of them, at an average cost of $9,000 per recipient. (That figure doesn’t include Social Security or Medicare benefits.) Federal and state welfare spending, adjusted for inflation, is 16 times greater than it was in 1964. If converted to cash, current means-tested spending is five times the amount needed to eliminate all official poverty in the U.S.

LBJ promised that the war on poverty would be an “investment” that would “return its cost manifold to the entire economy.” But the country has invested $20.7 trillion in 2011 dollars over the past 50 years. What does America have to show for its investment? Apparently, almost nothing: The official poverty rate persists with little improvement.

That is in part because the government’s poverty figures are misleading. Census defines a family as poor based on income level but doesn’t count welfare benefits as a form of income. Thus, government means-tested spending can grow infinitely while the poverty rate remains stagnant.

Not even government, though, can spend $9,000 per recipient a year and have no impact on living standards. And it shows: Current poverty has little resemblance to poverty 50 years ago. According to a variety of government sources, including census data and surveys by federal agencies, the typical American living below the poverty level in 2013 lives in a house or apartment that is in good repair, equipped with air conditioning and cable TV. His home is larger than the home of the average nonpoor French, German or English man. He has a car, multiple color TVs and a DVD player. More than half the poor have computers and a third have wide, flat-screen TVs. The overwhelming majority of poor Americans are not undernourished and did not suffer from hunger for even one day of the previous year.

Do higher living standards for the poor mean that the war on poverty has succeeded? No. To judge the effort, consider LBJ’s original aim. He sought to give poor Americans “opportunity not doles,” planning to shrink welfare dependence not expand it. In his vision, the war on poverty would strengthen poor Americans’ capacity to support themselves, transforming “taxeaters” into “taxpayers.” It would attack not just the symptoms of poverty but, more important, remove the causes.

By that standard, the war on poverty has been a catastrophe. The root “causes” of poverty have not shrunk but expanded as family structure disintegrated and labor-force participation among men dropped. A large segment of the population is now less capable of self-sufficiency than when the war on poverty began.

The collapse of marriage in low-income communities has played a substantial role in the declining capacity for self-support. In 1963, 6% of American children were born out of wedlock. Today the number stands at 41%. As benefits swelled, welfare increasingly served as a substitute for a bread-winning husband in the home.

According to the Heritage Foundation’s analysis, children raised in the growing number of single-parent homes are four times more likely to be living in poverty than children reared by married parents of the same education level. Children who grow up without a father in the home are also more likely to suffer from a broad array of social and behavioral problems. The consequences continue into adulthood: Children raised by single parents are three times more likely to end up in jail and 50% more likely to be poor as adults.

A lack of parental work poses another major problem. Even in good economic times, a parent in the average poor family works just 800 hours a year, roughly 16 hours weekly, according to census data. Low levels of work mean lower earnings and higher levels of dependence.

So how might we restore LBJ’s original mission in the war on poverty? First, as the economy improves, the government should require able-bodied, non-elderly adult recipients in federal welfare programs to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving benefits. We should also reduce the antimarriage incentives rife within welfare programs. For instance, current programs sharply cut benefits if a mother marries a working father. Reducing these restrictions would begin a long-term effort to rebuild the family in low-income communities.

This would be a better battle plan for eradicating poverty in America than spending more money on failed programs. And it would help achieve LBJ’s objective for the poor to “replace their despair with opportunity.”

Mr. Rector is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

To see the article in full, visit wsj.com.

The Changing Picture Of Poverty: Hard Work Is ‘Just Not Enough’

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Pam Fessler/NPR

poverty photo/npr

There are 46 million poor people in the U.S., and millions more hover right above the poverty line — but go into many of their homes, and you might find a flat-screen TV, a computer or the latest sneakers.

And that raises a question: What does it mean to be poor in America today?

Take Victoria Houser, a 22-year-old single mother who lives in Painted Post, a small town in western New York.

At first glance, her life doesn’t look all that bad. She lives in a cozy two-bedroom apartment. She has food, furniture and toys for her almost 2-year-old son, Brayden. He even likes playing a game called Fruit Ninja on her electronic tablet.

Desiree Metcalf, here with one of her three daughters, is one of many poor Americans who find themselves trapped in a system meant to help.

“He just likes touching it because he always sees me on my computer, my iPad or something,” Houser says.

Brayden’s father is out of the picture, and Houser knows she could be a lot worse off. At least she has a job earning $10 an hour preparing food in a company cafeteria.

Still, you don’t have to look too far to see that her life is teetering on the edge. Her nice-looking apartment? “It’s kind of not a very safe place to live,” she says. “There’ve been quite a few drug busts here.”

Houser says she’s scared to let her son play outside. Her next-door neighbor was recently arrested for allegedly murdering someone and stuffing the body in a cupboard.

Victoria Houser and her son, Brayden, may have food to eat and toys to play with, but she says she feels like she’s teetering on the edge.

But this subsidized housing is all she can afford. Most of Houser’s paycheck goes for things like food, diapers and gas. And she says what look like luxuries are necessities for her. They’re also mostly gifts from family or friends. She says she has a car to get to work, a computer to take online college courses, a cellphone to check up on her son.

But there’s one thing Houser doesn’t have, and that’s a lot of hope for the future.

Listen to and read the full piece at npr.org

It is Expensive to Be Poor

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By BARBARA EHRENREICH

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson made a move that was unprecedented at the time and remains unmatched by succeeding administrations. He announced a War on Poverty, saying that its “chief weapons” would be “better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities.”

So starting in 1964 and for almost a decade, the federal government poured at least some of its resources in the direction they should have been going all along: toward those who were most in need. Longstanding programs like Head Start, Legal Services, and the Job Corps were created. Medicaid was established. Poverty among seniors was significantly reduced by improvements in Social Security.

Johnson seemed to have established the principle that it is the responsibility of government to intervene on behalf of the disadvantaged and deprived. But there was never enough money for the fight against poverty, and Johnson found himself increasingly distracted by another and deadlier war—the one in Vietnam. Although underfunded, the War on Poverty still managed to provoke an intense backlash from conservative intellectuals and politicians.

To read the rest of the article, visit The Atlantic.com

A War on the Poor

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Read Paul Krugman’s op-ed on why it seems Republicans are out to get the poor.

John Kasich, the Republican governor of Ohio, has done some surprising things lately. First, he did an end run around his state’s Legislature — controlled by his own party — to proceed with the federally funded expansion of Medicaid that is an important piece of Obamacare. Then, defending his action, he let loose on his political allies, declaring, “I’m concerned about the fact there seems to be a war on the poor. That, if you’re poor, somehow you’re shiftless and lazy.”

Obviously Mr. Kasich isn’t the first to make this observation. But the fact that it’s coming from a Republican in good standing (although maybe not anymore), indeed someone who used to be known as a conservative firebrand, is telling. Republican hostility toward the poor and unfortunate has now reached such a fever pitch that the party doesn’t really stand for anything else — and only willfully blind observers can fail to see that reality.

The big question is why. But, first, let’s talk a bit more about what’s eating the right.

For the full story, go to nytimes.com

Slashing the Food Stamps Program

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A girl paid for her mother’s groceries using Electronic Benefits Transfer tokens, or Food Stamps, in New York City on Sept. 18, 2013. Image by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Even as negotiations proceed in Congress over a new farm bill likely to contain a large cut in food stamps, needy Americans who rely on the program are confronting an immediate drop in benefits.

As of today, the boost to the federal food stamps program included in the 2009 Economic Recovery Act expires, abruptly slashing benefit levels that were already inadequate for millions of poor children and their families, as well as impoverished disabled and elderly people, who will now find it significantly harder to afford adequate food.

To read the full story, visit nytimes.com.

Cutting the Lean From Food Stamps

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“If you live alone and receive $200 a month in food stamps (the maximum the government allows for a single person and the equivalent of $2.30 per meal), your budget remains unlikely to accommodate baby spinach and much of the healthy, essential, “good” food that in this city and so much of the country has become its own religion, at the levels of both culinary passion and public policy. We hail the fact that greenmarkets accept electronic benefit transfer cards, but availability and affordability are hardly tandem principles.”

To read this article by Ginia Bellafante on what low income families are experiencing in the Bronx and how cuts in the already lean food stamp program will effect them visit NYTimes.com

What are your thoughts on cuts to the food stamp program? How will this help or hurt our country?

Hunger in the Valley of Plenty–A Special Multimedia Series KQED/CIR collaboration by Scott Anger, Sasha Khokha and Natasha Del Toro

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California’s San Joaquin Valley is the country’s most productive farm belt: its fertile orchards and fields generate most of the nation’s fresh fruit and nuts. Yet for the people who work and live near these farms, access to healthy and fresh food can be a daily struggle.

An outgrowth of the American Realities project, watch the three-part series I worked on this summer with Fresno-based KQED reporter Sasha Khokha and producer/cameraman Scott Anger.

For the complete series, visit Center for Investigative Reporting online.

You can also visit KQED.org.

Five Things You Might Have Missed on ‘Poverty Day’

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The annual release of the US Census poverty data is the one day you can be sure the mainstream media will turn their attention to poverty. This year was no exception when Poverty Day arrived last Tuesday. Amidst the frenzy of coverage of the new data, here are five things you may have missed:

1) A Crisis for Children of Color Under Age 5

Melissa Boteach, director of Half in Ten, a campaign to cut poverty in half in ten years, notes “crisis levels of poverty” for children of color under age 5, including more than 42 percent of African-American children and 37 percent of Latino children living below the poverty line. The Children’s Defense Fund also highlighted disturbing statistics across the nation regarding poverty levels of children of color under age 6.

Boteach points out that toxic stress associated with persistent poverty affects brain development in children, and leads to adverse outcomes in education, health and worker productivity when those children reach adulthood. We also know that modest investments in young children can offset some of those negative effects, but we currently are moving in the opposite direction.

Boteach references a new report from First Focus — a bipartisan organization that advocates for investments in children and families — which finds that “in 2013 alone, sequestration will cut $4.2 billion of funding for children concentrated in the areas of education, early learning and housing, and Congress is considering a budget plan that would lock in or deepen these cuts for next year.” The report also finds that federal spending on children decreased last year by $28 billion, or 7 percent — the largest reduction since the early 1980s. Early education and childcare saw a particularly deep cut of 12 percent, and housing was cut by 6 percent.

“These data could not be timelier,” writes Boteach. “They show structural threats to our economic competitiveness owing to high rates of poverty among young children of color — who would be badly hurt by Congress locking in or deepening the sequester cuts.”

For the other four points, visit billmoyers.com

These Republicans Who Voted To Cut Food Stamps Personally Received Large Farm Subsidies

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By: Andrew Kaczynski

Several of the House Republicans who voted Thursday for a bill that slashed billions of dollars from the food stamp program personally received large farm subsidies for family farms. The bill cutting the food stamp program narrowly passed on a mostly party line 217 to 210 vote.

During the food stamp debate, GOP Rep. Stephen Fincher, who received thousands in farm subsidies, responded to a Democratic Congressman during the debate over the cuts by quoting the bible, saying “the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”

Fincher himself has received his own large share of government money. From 1999 to 2012, Stephen & Lynn Fincher Farms received $3,483,824 in agriculture subsidies. Last year he took in $70,574 alone.

To read more visit buzzfeed.com

Stuck In Poverty Amid Signs Of Recovery

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By Hansi Lo Wan and Maria Peñaloza

For the third year in a row, the poverty rate has remained stuck at about 15 percent. Nearly one in six Americans was living in poverty in 2012, according to by the Census Bureau. Despite a slow-moving economic recovery, these latest numbers show that for poor Americans, there are few signs of any recovery.

Fatima Goss Graves, who tracks poverty and employment stats at the National Women’s Law Center, called the poverty numbers a “disaster.” She’s seen the same dynamics facing the most vulnerable group in the American economy since the end of the recession.

That group, according to the Census Bureau, includes more than 46 million people living at or below the poverty line, which the federal government defines as a family of four making $23,283 a year or less, not including government benefits like food stamps.

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To read more and listen to the story, go to NPR.org.

Or click here to listen to the audio piece: Stuck in Poverty Amidst Recovery

The Rise of the New New Left

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By Peter Beinart Sep 12, 2013 4:45 AM EDT

Bill de Blasio’s win in New York’s Democratic primary isn’t a local story. It’s part of a vast shift that could upend three decades of American political thinking. By Peter Beinart

Maybe Bill de Blasio got lucky. Maybe he only won because he cut a sweet ad featuring his biracial son. Or because his rivals were either spectacularly boring, spectacularly pathological, or running for Michael Bloomberg’s fourth term. But I don’t think so. The deeper you look, the stronger the evidence that de Blasio’s victory is an omen of what may become the defining story of America’s next political era: the challenge, to both parties, from the left. It’s a challenge Hillary Clinton should start worrying about now.

Read more of this article at The Daily Beast

Bill de Blasio’s son, 15, appears on campaign ad

House Republicans Pass Deep Cuts in Food Stamps

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WASHINGTON — House Republicans narrowly pushed through a bill on Thursday that slashes billions of dollars from the food stamp program, over the objections of Democrats and a veto threat from President Obama. The bill passed narrowly despite efforts by the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, who spoke at a news conference on Thursday.
Related. The vote set up what promised to be a major clash with the Senate and dashed hopes for passage this year of a new five-year farm bill.The vote was 217 to 210, largely along party lines.

Republican leaders, under pressure from Tea Party-backed conservatives, said the bill was needed because the food stamp program, which costs nearly $80 billion a year, had grown out of control. They said the program had expanded even as jobless rates had declined with the easing recession.

To continue reading the article, visit NYTimes.com

Hunger Games, U.S.A

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By Paul Krugman

Something terrible has happened to the soul of the Republican Party. We’ve gone beyond bad economic doctrine. We’ve even gone beyond selfishness and special interests. At this point we’re talking about a state of mind that takes positive glee in inflicting further suffering on the already miserable.

The occasion for these observations is, as you may have guessed, the monstrous farm bill the House passed last week.

To read more of Krugman’s op-ed, go to nytimes.com.

Decline and fall: how American society unravelled

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By GEORGE PACKER

Thirty years ago, the old deal that held US society together started to unwind, with social cohesion sacrificed to greed. Was it an inevitable process – or was it engineered by self-interested elites?

In or around 1978, America’s character changed. For almost half a century, the United States had been a relatively egalitarian, secure, middle-class democracy, with structures in place that supported the aspirations of ordinary people. You might call it the period of the Roosevelt Republic. Wars, strikes, racial tensions and youth rebellion all roiled national life, but a basic deal among Americans still held, in belief if not always in fact: work hard, follow the rules, educate your children, and you will be rewarded, not just with a decent life and the prospect of a better one for your kids, but with recognition from society, a place at the table.

This unwritten contract came with a series of riders and clauses that left large numbers of Americans – black people and other minorities, women, gay people – out, or only halfway in. But the country had the tools to correct its own flaws, and it used them: healthy democratic institutions such as Congress, courts, churches, schools, news organisations, business-labour partnerships. The civil rights movement of the 1960s was a nonviolent mass uprising led by black southerners, but it drew essential support from all of these institutions, which recognised the moral and legal justice of its claims, or, at the very least, the need for social peace. The Roosevelt Republic had plenty of injustice, but it also had the power of self-correction.

To continue reading, visit The Guardian online

Schooling Ourselves in an Unequal America

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By REBECCA STRAUSS

Averages can be misleading. The familiar, one-dimensional story told about American education is that it was once the best system in the world but that now it’s headed down the drain, with piles of money thrown down after it.

The truth is that there are two very different education stories in America. The children of the wealthiest 10 percent or so do receive some of the best education in the world, and the quality keeps getting better. For most everyone else, this is not the case. America’s average standing in global education rankings has tumbled not because everyone is falling, but because of the country’s deep, still-widening achievement gap between socioeconomic groups.

To continue reading, visit nytimes.com

Park Avenue: How much inequality is too much?

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Watch this important important documentary about money, power and the American Dream. Park Avenue.

It’s part of the Why Poverty? series, a project that uses film and new media to get people thinking about poverty and solutions.

Learn more about the series at the Why Poverty?website.

The 1 Percent Are Only Half the Problem

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By Timothy Noah

Most recent discussion about economic inequality in the United States has focused on the top 1 percent of the nation’s income distribution, a group whose incomes average $1 million (with a bottom threshold of about $367,000). “We are the 99 percent,” declared the Occupy protesters, unexpectedly popularizing research findings by two economists, Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, that had previously drawn attention mainly from academics. But the gap between the 1 percent and the 99 percent is only half the story.

To read the full article, visit NYTimes.com