Point of View

Fickleness and frailties: the variables that the War on Poverty can’t fight

February 1, 2014 

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ROMAN SIGAEV — Getty Images/iStockphoto

My parents could not have come from more different backgrounds. Dad was the son of a well-to-do Irish Catholic immigrant and executive in the canning industry. His father’s money afforded him the benefit of private schools, a lovely home, summers in the Adirondacks and a degree in economics from Columbia.

But the Great Depression meant that my father’s acceptance letter from Harvard Law School would go unanswered. That’s around the same time his drinking began in earnest, and it gathered steam throughout a stint in the Marine Corps during World War II. By the time I was born as the last child of four in 1958, Dad was a raging alcoholic, unable to hold a steady job. He left for good when I was 2, and after that I saw him mostly in halfway houses.

My mother was a child of white-shoe Baptists from Tennessee. Married at 19, like most women of her generation she didn’t go to college. She was the child of an alcoholic father whom she adored, and like many children of alcoholics she found herself unwittingly married to one.

But when the handwriting was on the wall, she packed up her four children and moved to her mother’s house in Baltimore. There, Grandma and my sisters helped get me fed and off to school each day while my mother taught herself to type, landed a day job as a secretary and then took a second job on nights and weekends as an admissions clerk at a local hospital.

By 1966 she was earning enough to move us to a one-bedroom apartment in the suburbs, where I benefited from outstanding public schools and an array of sports and extracurricular activities. She scrimped to afford piano lessons and summer camps, dragged me to the symphony and art galleries, enrolled me in scouting and steered me toward experiences that revealed a fascinating world beyond the borders of the one she could afford for us.

We lived well below the poverty line in those three years, but we never considered ourselves poor. We felt like students with a bright future, and we were right.

Not long after we were off and running in our first jobs, we paid off our school loans and never looked back. This year will mark 30 years for me in private practice, and in that time I have been privileged not only to earn my living in the law but to support the jobs of dozens of associates, paralegals, secretaries and staff members.

My story is common to the baby boom generation, most of whose parents were not rich and couldn’t afford fully paid educations or the advantages my father enjoyed as a child. Yet my father failed.

Even with the obstacles of single parenthood without advanced education or skills, my mother succeeded and enabled her children to do the same.

Why? How?

Since the 50th anniversary of President’s Johnson’s War on Poverty, I have read interesting essays gauging its success. Some counsel a surge of spending to achieve victory, while others would abandon the battlefield in a disorderly retreat. Conservatives bemoan government social programs for perpetuating dependency, claiming that the only sure way up for the poor is through gritty determination

They are wrong, of course. Without the government’s help, I wouldn’t have made it, and neither would have many conservative critics who benefited from government programs that lightened the financial burden of a good education and provided affordable food, health care and housing.

But it seems the liberals are no wiser, and Johnson was chief among them. He tragically and falsely told the nation, “For the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty.” Today, it is an article of the progressive faith that if we only open the coffers of state and federal spending wide enough, we will win the war.

The War on Poverty is an unfortunate metaphor, because as a nation we can no more conquer poverty than my father could vanquish himself.

The War on Poverty is a war indeed, but it is one waged by people and families, not governme0nts. Conservatives fail to realize that Johnson’s programs are invaluable allies in that war, but liberals fail to see that government is at the rear guard. No amount of largesse or any force of sheer will can assure victory. Life is messier than that.

Despite our best efforts, alcoholism, drug addiction, violence and random events will defeat a substantial number of us. More than a trillion dollars in spending on poverty programs since 1965 has stabilized historical rates of poverty, but the rate hasn’t strayed far from what it was when Johnson left office in 1969. A stubborn 10 to 15 percent of our population is poor, year in and year out, through administrations Democratic and Republican. That doesn’t mean we should stop spending money to help them, but it might mean that we should stop using poverty spending as a political football.

As always the magic is in the middle, which poses a challenge for a government as badly polarized as ours.

Our task is to see the world as it is and do what can be done without excoriating ourselves or our leaders for failing to achieve what cannot be done. We should not regard the persistence of poverty as a failure of Johnson’s policies or a reason to abandon them. But neither should we allow our politics to be driven by the fantasy that government can eradicate the myriad human frailties that lead to unemployment and failure. Such a war would be only tilting at windmills.

Michael Hurley is an attorney in private practice in Raleigh.

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