In his 1964 State of the Union Address President Lyndon Johnson launched what became known as the "war on poverty" saying: "Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it, and above all to prevent it."
Like the war in Vietnam, which he simultaneously fought, Johnson lost the "war on poverty." In 1964 the U.S. Poverty rate stood at 17.3%, after a half century with spending totally in the trillions of dollars, that rate today is stuck at 15%.
The "war on poverty" has been lost because the central theme of Johnson’s address got subverted to the cause of big government. Anti-poverty programs sough not to "relieve the symptom of poverty," but rather to entrap poverty stricken families in web of government dependency. At that the "war" has been successful as, for example, a record 47 million U.S. households today receive food stamps.
Although President Johnson’s anti-poverty initiative failed in its stated goal, it has been a resounding political success for his party. Under the guise of compassion, Democrats have been successful in creating an entire class of voters dependent on government. As a result entitlement programs now make up an unsustainable percentage of the federal budget and are driving trillion dollar budget deficits.
Conversely, Republicans have been portrayed as modern day Scrooges who care more about the bottom line than about the needs of poor Americans. While the negative fiscal impact of deficit spending is real, the GOP has enhanced this reputation by failing to provide realistic solutions to fighting poverty through the provision of human services.
That, however, is changing.
In what is shaping up as a major change in how Republican policy-makers deal with poverty and the confusing and inefficient labyrinth of human service programs designed to combat it, major initiatives are underway at both the state and national level to develop a new – and hopefully more effective – anti-poverty paradigm.
At the national level Congressman Paul Ryan, the GOP’s 2012 Vice Presidential nominee, has spent years researching and developing his Expanding Opportunities in America program. Ryan proposes reforms to the nation’s educational and social safety net programs. He also wants a review and streamlining of the thousands of federal regulations that frequently are a roadblock to providing effective services.
Funding for human services trickle down to the state, and ultimately to the county level where many such programs are actually implemented. So, in addition to federal bureaucracies a level of state administration gets overlaid on human service programs before the dollars actually get to the counties and nonprofit organizations providing service.
State Representative David Reed, who serves as Majority Policy Chairman, last year launched his Empowering Opportunities: Gateways out of Poverty Initiative. Reed returns to Lyndon Johnson’s original promise saying: "With more than 1.6 million Pennsylvanians struggling in poverty today, our responsibility is to begin the discussion anew on the most effective and successful means of transitioning our citizens from a life of poverty to self-sustainability."
Congressman Ryan and Representative Reed have thus laid the groundwork for a major change in the way our nation and state address dealing with persistent poverty. But, bringing about such systemic change will not be easy. Defenders of the status quo will predictably claim the proposals lack compassion, and some conservatives will balk at a continued major role for government in combating poverty.
After fifty years of failure it is crystal clear that what we have been doing simply hasn’t worked. Ryan and Reed are proposing a way forward that could begin the process of actually addressing the root causes of poverty in a way designed to lift people out of government dependency. At this point we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected].)
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