LBJ's program wouldn't fly with today's Congress

How can so many of our legislators be so blind to the problems of everyday Americans, and how can our government’s most collegial body be so ahistorical? The tragic irony is not lost that on the 50th anniversary of President Johnson announcing his War on Poverty, the walls of the Senate echo with the voices of those who choose to turn their backs on more than 1.3 million disenfranchised U.S. citizens.

Unemployment is a symptom of larger systemic faults in our economy, and should be treated as such. The ranks of the chronically long-term unemployed are the victims of a failed system. We need to stop judging a group of people based on the worst amongst them. The 1.3 million citizens affected by the loss of emergency unemployment benefits represent a group of people that have been out of work for more than 26 weeks, some of them for well over a year. These are not lazy men and women looking to game the system or take what they did not earn. These are citizens who paid into an insurance program that promised to protect them. They want nothing more than the security of steady work, and the pride of a weekly paycheck. To treat them as anything else shows contempt for our crippled working class.

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LBJ’s 1964 initiatives were a call to action. They were a response to a social problem deemed unacceptable by the masses. President Johnson realized that ignoring the nearly 40 million Americans living below the poverty line was too objectionable to permit. The responsibility to shoulder the burden of systemic failures cannot be shunned.

Programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Food Stamps were instituted to shepherd our poor and elderly out of the shadows and the cold. They spoke to the better angels of our nature, those of us who saw the faces of our grandparents in the shivering eyes of the freezing veteran underneath the bridge. These were never considered handouts; they were considered acts of a great society, a community of people that believed in caring for those who had no one to do so. The tragedy of today’s anniversary is that legislatively speaking these programs would be dead on arrival in our current political climate.

Conservative groups would bemoan the advancement of the welfare state, and pick on the outliers of the afflicted who are abusing the system. LBJ, a forgotten president in many respects, deserves his legacy to not only be remembered, but advanced. A three-month extension on emergency unemployment benefits is not a watershed moment in American politics. It is legislation of necessity. It is the difference between 1.3 million people scraping by, or falling further out of place in society.

Republican senators insist that unemployment benefits are a disincentive for those whom receive it, but these types of arguments are spurious to say the least. These are men and women who deserve our support and not our ostracization. With an estimated 3 job seekers for every available job opening, how can we lay blame on a struggling underclass? These are the victims of our recovering economy and they have faces, names, and families. There was a time in American politics when we came together to tackle the problems that plagued us as a nation. There was a time in American government when we stood for the weakest among us. It is been a long established precedent that our social safety nets are put in place to prevent the weakest of our brothers and sisters from falling through the cracks. Has the Republican conference forgotten this?

Garland is a communications intern with the Department of Justice, a political science major at Montclair State University, and a political writer and blogger.