The war on poverty has not been won

The war on poverty has not been won
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This summer, the Trump administration argued in a 66-page report, “The war on poverty is largely over and a success.” The declaration intended to curtail our evolving progress and exaggerate the stigmatization of family arrangements fraught by destabilizing housing affordability and food security. The president’s economic council sees gainfully employed folks, such as my sister using Medicaid for my nieces or a youth ministry volunteer depending upon Section 8, as a threat to America’s values and economic health. Washington’s declaration of success in the war on poverty continues a decades-long war on the poor.

Out of political expediency, President Johnson introduced legislative priorities now known as the war on poverty. Johnson acknowledged the intersectionality of race and class: “Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope — some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both.”

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President TrumpDonald John TrumpMost Americans break with Trump on Ukraine, but just 45 percent think he should be removed: poll Judge orders Democrats to give notice if they request Trump's NY tax returns Trump's doctor issues letter addressing 'speculation' about visit to Walter Reed MORE, who campaigned on a platform of boosting opportunities for the economically insecure, signed an executive order in April guiding the restructuring of work requirements and access to public benefits such as housing, health care and food assistance. The White House blindly discredits the looming effects of intensifying work requirements for welfare beneficiaries. This actual war on the poor weakens the moral authority of the country and undermines the longevity of democracy.

As it fabricated the conquest of poverty, the White House essentially justified a call for draconian work requirements for people benefiting from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that is playing out in the Farm Bill debate in Congress. In June, the House passed a partisan farm bill, that would severely gut SNAP. If the bill prevails in conference, the administration’s war on the poor will gain momentum.

The disruption to anti-poverty work abandons those who feverishly attempt to secure food, a sturdy shelter, and feasible health care coverage. More than 74 million people meet their health care needs via Medicaid, 41 million people use SNAP to obtain food, and more than 5 million people benefit from some form of federal public housing assistance.

Severe cuts to our safety net routinely follow cuts to taxes. In service of capitalism, the executive branch and the Republican-dominated Congress propose starving, neglecting and stigmatizing certain Americans to fund their corporate welfare bill dishonestly sold to the public as a tax cut that would trickle down to the middle class. The new tax law upturns the nation’s deficit by $1.5 trillion over the next decade, and the administration is looking for additional ways to help the rich.

The incestuous romance between our financial and political structures births systemic poverty, converting neighborhoods into centers of education inequity, commercial deserts and sites of health care crises. We are turning our back on our people and inviting them to climb the economic ladder with missing rungs and sole-less boots.      

The White House Council of Economic Advisers declared a victory in the war on poverty using a consumption-based reading of America, instead of an income-based one. The analysis obscured the income deficiencies of a large number of people. To focus on consumption rates misses how our economy thrives on the consumerism of poor people, which also obfuscates how credit and debt fortify poverty. While most Americans eat daily and have places to live, millions of people lack the power to shape their socioeconomic destinies — how much they earn, the quality of education for their children, the future of their residential community, the nutritional quality of their diets and their health outcomes. In the wealthiest nation, 1.5 million people in America try to live on $2 a day.

With our technological will and material abundance, surely we could eradicate poverty in America once and for all if we conquered our apathetic imaginations. From Wall Street to the Gulf Coast and beyond, the illness of America, symptomized by sheer greed and rugged individualism, proves to be highly contagious. One taste of the crumbs of the American Dream, or limited exposure to a rash of unfounded nationalistic logic, converts loving people into moral zombies of American capitalism.

In the era of “Make America Great Again,” the deliberate unwillingness to dream of, fight for and legislate toward the abolition of poverty questions the legitimacy of American exceptionalism and the substance of our national greatness. In a moral society, where all of our destinies are wedded together, the felt reality of poverty on any American street disallows us to claim prosperity nationally.

American cannot be great if we cannot protect and expand our safety net programs. The fight against poverty is on the ballot in November. While some want to reclaim, nebulously, a great America, we need a mass movement of goodness unwedded to the capitalist imagination, where we digest the reminder that enough wealth exists here to eradicate poverty and we demand policies congruent with a moral vision of economic sufficiency for all.

Willie D. Francois is senior pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville, New Jersey, and president of the Black Church Center for Justice and Equality. He is co-author of “Christian Minister’s Manual: For the Pulpit and the Public Square for All Denomination” (2017).