From LBJ's 'War on Poverty' to today's war on the poor

In his first State of the Union address on January 8, 1964, Lyndon Johnson combined compassion with responsible governance to launch an all-out War on Poverty in America. Moved to eradicate the paradox of poverty in a wealthy nation, his administration sensibly implemented multiple programs to raise wages, give children a good start, improve education, increase health care access, and ensure no one would go hungry.

Fifty years later, with U.S. poverty an alarming 15 percent, that effort remains urgent. Yet, in response, too many of today’s leaders profess faith and sectarian values at every turn, but act as though America is at war with the poor.

ADVERTISEMENT
With rising inequality holding back economic recovery and laying bare the destitution of so many, is disdain and disregard for the downtrodden really the vision of humanity we wish to project to ourselves and the rest of the world?

Johnson’s vision scored great successes, but aspects of the poverty paradox he challenged still persist half a century later. Though America is much more prosperous today than in 1964, our wealth has been shared so unequally that millions remain poor or hovering at the margins. That poverty is pervasive, affecting rural, urban and suburban; White, Black, Native American and Hispanic; working and unemployed.

Shamefully, instead of strengthening anti-poverty programs, too many of our political leaders train their sights on them. This assault assembled along two fronts in 2013, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; formerly food stamps) and unemployment insurance (UI). Undoubtedly, it will regroup against upcoming efforts to raise the minimum wage.

It is both baffling and unconscionable that Congress would allow constituents to go hungry, live without unemployment benefits, or be paid wages too low to meet basic needs—but that is what’s happening.

In November, Congress let SNAP benefits fall, making 48 million hungry Americans even hungrier by lowering an already paltry $1.50 per meal average allotment to $1.40. And the pain for these seniors, veterans, children and working poor will deepen, as Farm Bill conferees hammer out additional SNAP cuts.

At the same time, 1.3 million long-term unemployed jobseekers are struggling even harder to pay for food, housing and heat, thanks to Congress’ failure to renew federal unemployment insurance in December. And, more than four years after the Great Recession’s official end, real wages for America’s lowest paid workers are below 1960s levels.

Defenders of these actions say government safety net programs are America’s enemy. They falsely claim that cutting SNAP, ending federal unemployment insurance, and keeping the minimum wage low (despite huge productivity gains) spurs economic recovery. Their hurtful rhetoric even demonizes human beings helped by government programs by characterizing SNAP beneficiaries and jobless Americans as willfully lazy fraudsters.

It’s time for our political leaders to stand up for those hurt by these painful cuts. It’s time to lay down the facts and lead with courage and conviction to protect and improve programs that reduce poverty, hunger and joblessness.

Here are the facts:

  • The federal emergency unemployment program works as intended, allowing job seekers to meet basic needs while seeking employment. Since 2008, almost 24 million Americans—including families with 19 million children—have received extended unemployment benefits, and the program has kept more than 11 million out of poverty.
  • SNAP works—efficiently. By assisting seniors, children, and employed and unemployed workers through tough times with the potential to have healthy food, SNAP lifted more than 4 million Americans above poverty in 2012.
  • These programs benefit America’s bottom line. The Health Impact Project recently found that, under one proposal, the 5.1 million adults and children who may lose SNAP benefits would ultimately suffer more poverty and poorer health, translating into nearly $15 billion over 10 years to manage diabetes alone—at taxpayers’ expense.
  • There is no better investment for the national economy than help for struggling families, and SNAP and UI are the two most effective investments. Moody’s Analytics and the USDA estimate the economic growth impact of SNAP ranges from $1.73 to $1.79 per $1.00 of SNAP benefits. Each $1 billion SNAP cut eliminates 13,718 jobs. Federal jobless payments pump billions of dollars into state economies. According to the Council of Economic Advisors, ending these benefits will cost us 240,000 jobs in 2014.
  • Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour would not only restore much of the standard’s lost value, it would benefit 30 million workers, pump $25 billion in consumer demand into the economy, and strengthen economic security for 17 million children. 

The facts are clear, as is our responsibility as a nation with incredible resources. We cannot willfully abandon the downtrodden by slashing programs that benefit the neediest—and the nation as a whole. President Obama and Congress must restore SNAP cuts enacted in November, renew federal unemployment benefits and raise the minimum wage.

Weill is president of the Food Research and Action Center and Owens is executive director of the National Employment Law Project.