Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson launched the longest and most expensive war in American history: the war on poverty. “Our aim,” he said, “is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.”
Today, that heroic vision seems like a distant mirage. Last year, about 14.5 percent of Americans, or 45.3 million people, were living below the poverty line, according to the Census Bureau. Despite trillions of dollars in spending, the percentage of poor Americans has actually increased since the 1970s.
But statistics do not tell the whole story. They fail to capture the tremendous strides we have made against poverty or the enormity of the challenges we face moving forward.
First, the good news. Millions of Americans may be classified as poor – defined as an income less than $23,830 for a family of four and $11,890 for a single individual – but only a tiny fraction of them are truly destitute.
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Some still complain about a “ rising tide of hunger,” but we have so effectively conquered this central consequence of poverty that the USDA now tracks “food insecurity.” While reporting that 14.3 percent of Americans experienced food insecurity last year, the agency also noted that “the inadequacies [largely] were in the form of reduced quality and variety rather than insufficient quantity.”
This dovetails with the USDA’s surprising finding that poor children consume more calories than those living in households with incomes above $75,000.
Like other Americans, the poor have enjoyed a marked rise in their standard of living. Scholars culling Census Reports have found that 74 percent of the poor have air conditioning; in 1970, only 36 percent of all Americans enjoyed it. About 96 percent own televisions, nearly two-thirds of the poor have satellite or cable TV and about two-thirds own computers. In 2011, 42 percent of the nation’s poor owned their own homes.
A roof over your head and access to sufficient but poor quality food, however, is not the American dream. But these statistics do belie the claim that America is a greedy, uncaring nation that allows millions to wallow in misery. The mix of government programs and a global economic system that makes more stuff more cheaply has trickled down blessings on almost everyone.
Still the poor face many challenges the rest of us would not wish upon anyone. This seems to raise a moral question: What are our obligations to our fellow citizens? Are we duty-bound to provide more than the necessities of life? Given our left-right split, I doubt we will reach a consensus on those questions.
Since the war on poverty has been fought at a standstill for decades, better questions to ask are: Do we know how to gain ground? And, if so, can we afford to?
Expanding the earned income tax credit (a far more targeted anti-poverty approach than raising the minimum wage) might help around the margins. But it is not a difference maker. The most promising research suggests that in addition to more aggressive birth control programs, we should explore womb-to-grave programs in which nurses, social workers and educators help poor parents raise their children and keep them on track throughout their lives. There are no cost estimates, but such a Marshall Plan for the poor would surely cost trillions up front, even if it paid dividends down the road.
Finding the money would be hard in a thriving economy. It seems almost impossible today.
Adjusted for inflation, median household income is 8 percent below where it was in 2007. Median incomes have fallen 4 percent since the recession officially ended in 2009. The labor participation rate is hovering near all-time lows, and the percentage of workers in their prime, ages 25 to 54, has dropped more than two points since 2008, to 81.1 percent. There is no evidence that these numbers will turn around soon.
As a result, the middle-class is turning to government for assistance. About one-third of Americans – more than 100 million people – live in households receiving means-tested benefits.
Meanwhile, other programs, especially Social Security and Medicare, are plunging toward bankruptcy. Efforts to expand Medicaid and calls to forgive college loans are signs that ever more citizens will be competing with the poor for a greater share of our tax dollars.
Our challenge is to recognize that we no longer have the luxury to debate what we should do.
Instead we must do the harder work of determining what we can afford to do. No claim – those of the poor, the young, the faltering middle class, the elderly – can be weighed in isolation. We are all in this together.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.