Fifty years is a long time ago, and no one remembers what happened then, whatever it was, as if it was yesterday. Wednesday, January 8, 1964 – that would have been the next to last year of high school, in that giant public high school in the sprawling new suburbs just north of Pittsburgh, and that would have been just another forgettable winter day in a place where nothing ever happens. We all knew real life happened elsewhere – all restless adolescents know that – and sooner or later we’d get the hell out of there and hunt it down, and finally join in. That particular day was thus another day of nothing much – stuff with girls and cars and papers due and trying to seem cool – all long forgotten now. There are those whose lives peak in high school – the prom queen or the football hero – for whom nothing will ever be as wonderful as that one bright shining moment. Those are the ones who have memories of one single day fifty years ago. No one else does.
Certainly none of us were following politics. There might have been some class called Current Events, but that was the kind of class where you stared out the window and let the eager dorks answer the questions. That stuff wasn’t cool. Kennedy had been assassinated a few months earlier, and that was just puzzling, and life went on much as before anyway. And on January 8, 1964, the new president, Lyndon Johnson, gave his first State of the Union Address – probably telling the nation that Jack Kennedy was still dead. What else could he say? Who cared? High school kids have other things on their minds.
That was, however, a landmark speech. Johnson, seemingly out of the blue, declared an unconditional War on Poverty – surprising everyone. No one has ever declared a war on a general social condition before. Maybe he was nuts, and soon he was talking about creating a Great Society, whatever that meant. It seems he wanted to complete what FDR had started – creating an America where no one fell through the cracks, ever, and everyone finally got a fair chance at success. Politicians always say that sort of thing, but apparently Johnson was serious about this, and after all his years in the Senate, he was masterful at wheeling and dealing and getting things passed that no one thought possible. No one knew what he’d do, but he could do something. Additionally, this Great Society would be his legacy – his alone, not Kennedy’s. The man had an ego. All politicians do.
Johnson’s legacy turned out to be the Vietnam War, which he escalated from that Gulf of Tonkin incident to a half a millions troops on the ground, a full-scale war which destroyed him. He decided he just couldn’t run for a second full term. It all had turned to dust, but exactly fifty years ago, the war he actually had in mind was his War on Poverty. Later, Ronald Reagan would say “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won” – but Johnson really didn’t lose the one war he really cared about. The Social Security Act 1965 created Medicare and Medicaid and the Food Stamp Act of 1964 kept poor people from starving and kept farmers farming, and The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 created the Community Action Program and the Job Corps and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), and in 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act boosted school funding everywhere, so no child would be left behind, which even the second George Bush thought was a fine idea. Johnson hadn’t been mouthing platitudes. He was serious. He twisted arms. He cut deals. He changed America. All this, or most of it, is still with us, woven into the ordinary fabric of American life.
The antiwar left always hated the guy. The part of the left more concerned with economic fairness, and a sense of the common good, should love the guy. They don’t, and that’s wrong – but he was a strange and unlikable man. They should, however, remember Wednesday, January 8, 1964, the day Lyndon Johnson declared the one war they could support, enthusiastically.
Did he win that war? The economist Jared Bernstein offers an assessment:
Social Security – a New Deal program that was expanded in the 1960s – today reduces the official elderly poverty rate from 44 percent without counting Social Security benefits to 9 percent with them. That development alone belies the facile Reagan quip. More careful analysis of the benefits of our current set of anti-poverty programs further underscore this point.
Yet poverty still exists. The official measure stands at 15 percent, but it is widely regarded to woefully inadequate, as it depends on outdated income thresholds and omits both much of the impact of policies intended to fight poverty and income sources of low-income households. Under a metric that corrects for these omissions, the poverty rate in 2012 was 16 percent; that’s almost 50 million people, including 13 million children.
Still, that rate is considerably lower than two important benchmarks. First, thanks to a recent study by poverty scholars from Columbia University, we can track this improved metric back to the latter 1960s. In 1967, about 26 percent were poor compared to 16 percent in 2012.
Second – and this benchmark really gets to the question of the effectiveness of anti-poverty policies – absent those policies, the 2012 rate would be 29 percent, meaning that the value of food stamps, unemployment benefits, the earned-income tax credit, housing subsidies and more lifted 13 percent of the population – 40 million people – out of poverty that year.
What LBJ started, and other Democratic administrations enhanced, worked pretty well, or it didn’t:
I suspect that if I could sit President Johnson down and explain to him all we’ve done to maintain and expand the policy arsenal he helped to introduce half a century ago, he’d be surprised that there’s still so much economic hardship.
The reason, however, is not the ineffectiveness of the anti-poverty programs that his administration introduced and strengthened. It’s that they’ve had to work much harder in an economy that has made it a lot tougher for those at the bottom to get ahead. If this is a war, then it is not just the anti-poverty forces that have gotten stronger over time… The opposing army, wielding weapons of inequality, globalization, de-unionization, lower minimum wages, slack labor markets and decreasing returns to lower-end jobs, has also gained much strength.
Something else is at play now too:
There’s a counterargument – one as old as poverty itself – that says don’t blame the economy; the poor themselves have made life choices that consigned them to poverty, like not getting enough schooling, single parenthood, or having children out of wedlock.
Cue Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan and the Tea Party. That counterargument is louder than ever, and Bernstein argues that the problem is beyond the old LBJ fixes:
The American safety net is actively helping millions of economically disadvantaged families, and we should protect and improve it. But the best way to help it – and more importantly, the poor themselves – is to strengthen the underlying economy in ways that will take some of the pressure off of what has, over the last 50 years, become an effective set of anti-poverty social policies.
Derek Thompson sees something else:
The poverty rate among married couples is quite low: 6 percent. The poverty rate among single-dads/moms is quite high: 25/31 percent. Since the share of single-parent households doubled since 1950, we should expect it to stress the poverty rate, especially since low-income people closer to the poverty line are less likely to marry, in the first place. Things get really interesting when you zoom into the marriage picture. Among what you might consider “modern families” (e.g. the 61 million people married and living together, both working), there is practically no poverty. None. Among marriages where one person works and the other doesn’t (another 36 million Americans) the poverty rate is just under 10 percent.
But take away one parent and the picture changes rather dramatically. There are 62 million single-parent families in America. Forty-one percent of them (26 million households) don’t have any full-time workers. This is something beyond a wage crisis. It’s a jobs crisis, a participation crisis – and it’s a major driver of our elevated poverty rate.
That’s adding detail to Bernstein’s argument that the LBJ stuff was fine, to deal with the painful symptoms of poverty, but dealing with the root causes may be more important.
Keven Drum seems to think that this means we have a stalemate:
The Great Society programs of the 60s got the working-age poverty rate down from 20 percent to 15 percent, but then we gave up. Since the mid-70s, the poverty rate has stayed stubbornly stuck at about 15 percent… The overall poverty rate has gone down substantially in the past half century, but that’s largely because of the huge effect of Social Security on elderly poverty. But as much as this is a great achievement, it’s not what most people think of when you talk about “poverty.” Rather, they’re mostly thinking of working-age people who are either unemployed or earning tiny wages. And among those people, we simply haven’t done much for the past 40 years.
We haven’t, and Zeke J Miller, Maya Rhodan, and Alex Rogers think there is little hope we will do much:
Both sides largely reject the others’ proposals as misguided. … Democrats object that Republicans are trying to gut welfare programs and public education with their so-called reforms. At the root of the dueling rhetoric around the War on Poverty is a political question: Does the government enable, or is it an enabler? “There is a lot more clarity on the current trends in inequality than there is on what to do about it, much less any agreement,” said Isabel Sawhill, Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution.
The War on Poverty, declared fifty years ago this week, isn’t over. Some of us should have been paying more attention back in high school. That was one day to remember.
There are some new ideas of course, even from conservatives, and at National Affairs, Michael Strain offers this:
Conservatives should … consider some creative reforms of the unemployment-insurance system. Giving unemployed workers a modest cash bonus when they secure employment has been shown to be effective in shortening the length of unemployment spells, and, if targeted at workers who have a high probability of exhausting benefits, it can actually save the taxpayers money in the long run. It seems implausible that a re-employment bonus would have a large effect on long-term unemployment, but evidence suggests that it would help in addressing shorter unemployment spells.
There is also some evidence that giving out lump-sum unemployment benefits may be preferable to the current system of weekly checks. Under traditional unemployment insurance, a worker forgoes his unemployment benefit by taking a job. Lump-sum unemployment insurance may be beneficial because it would mitigate the weekly-check system’s incentive to delay starting a job. With lump-sum unemployment benefits paid, say, every month rather than every week, a worker who got a job at the beginning of a pay period could take in both unemployment compensation and a paycheck for that month. If this gets workers off unemployment faster, then the program could save money over traditional unemployment insurance.
That’s thinking outside the box as they say, but Michael Tomasky considers reality:
I liked the essay and even agreed with a respectable percentage of what Strain had to say. But reading it was far more infuriating than reading something by a conservative and disagreeing with every syllable, because articles like Strain’s refuse to acknowledge, let alone try to grapple with, the central and indisputable fact that the contemporary Republican Party – his presumed vehicle for all this pro-jobs reform – has opposed many of these initiatives tooth and nail.
Charles Pierce dismisses the whole thing:
The problem, of course, is that not a single policy proposal in the piece has a snowball’s chance in hell of passing the House of Representatives as that body is currently constituted.
That is because the House Republican caucus remains thoroughly wedded to the economic snake-oil introduced into the national bloodstream by the sainted Ronald Reagan in 1980. Until the Republicans abandon supply-side economics as the phantasmagoria it always has been, there is no hope for the kind of reform Strain seems to be advocating.
Greg Sargent sums up the issue rather well:
With the three month extension of unemployment benefits set for a Senate vote this morning, multiple Republicans are going all in on the suggestion that they would support extending benefits if only it were paid for. Republicans want to reframe this as a battle over how to pay for extending benefits, not over whether to extend them at all – as a fight over fiscal responsibility, not over whether to preserve the safety net amid mass unemployment.
Some of the coverage suggests this reframing exercise is working – what’s being lost is the fact that many Republicans oppose an extension on ideological grounds.
Sargent cites the Associated Press – “Republicans appeared split into three camps: [GOP co-sponsor Dean] Heller and an unknown number of others; a group that is willing to renew the benefits, but insists that the $6.4 billion cost be paid for; and a third group opposed under any circumstances.” Later in the day the first group prevailed. The Senate passed a motion to move extension of long-term unemployment benefits, without conditions, to the floor for discussion – and may do no more than that, and if they do pass something in the Senate it will die in the House of course. House Speaker John Boehner has his demands:
One month ago I personally told the White House that another extension of temporary emergency unemployment benefits should not only be paid for but include something to help put people back to work. To date, the president has offered no such plan.
Ed Kilgore edits Boehner’s words:
Dozens of bills are awaiting action in the Senate that would provide job skills training for the unemployed [tax credits], ease job-destroying burdens on small businesses [kill environmental, job-safety and labor regulations], promote innovation and education [school vouchers], create energy and infrastructure jobs [drill, baby drill!], and get rid of the president’s health care law that is making it harder to hire workers in this country. To help Americans find new jobs, the president should call on the Senate to act on them.
So Boehner’s actually demanding budget offsets, the repeal of Obamacare, and presumably big chunks of the rest of the GOP agenda. In a word: “Surrender or the unemployed get it!”
Lyndon Johnson imagined none of this, although Salon’s Joan Walsh sees that something is up:
It’s worth noting how much Democrats have already changed the UI debate. Republicans have gone from flat refusals to extend long-term unemployment to insisting they’ll consider an extension, as long as it’s paid for. That’s progress worth acknowledging.
Sure, Congress extended UI 14 of 17 times without finding funds to pay for it, including five times under George W. Bush. The party’s recent extremism on unemployment insurance is just another measure of how far it has shifted right in the last five years. But Democrats’ new boldness on issues of economic populism and income inequality has Republicans scrambling for a politically palatable reply – on UI as well as the larger issue of poverty and opportunity.
Lyndon Johnson’s side may be winning a few here:
Sen. Rand Paul is the poster boy for the GOP’s ideological scramble. In early December he flatly dismissed a UI extension by saying it did a “disservice” to the unemployed. Four weeks later, after spending some of his winter break back in Kentucky, where unemployment remains high and 38,000 jobless people lost benefits Dec. 28, Paul shifted a little, agreeing to consider an extension as long as it’s paid for.
But Paul continued to push the line that UI hurts the unemployed by creating a “disincentive” to seek work. The lightweight freshman senator apparently has been bulking up on economics research lately, citing studies that he says prove that extended insurance impedes recipients from getting jobs. The only problem is that the economist Paul cited, Rand Ghayad, says the Tea Party senator is misrepresenting his work. In fact, Ghayad’s research says the opposite of what Paul claims and makes the case for extended benefits.
There may be nowhere to hide now:
The new aggressiveness is working. No longer are the unemployed merely “takers” leeching off “makers,” to use Paul Ryan’s old lexicon. In the new GOP poverty rhetoric, they’re victims of Democratic government. Of course, that’s actually old rhetoric, going back to Ronald Reagan falsely declaring, “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.”
But in the last decade Reagan came to look like a bleeding-heart liberal for even appearing to care about the poor. Republican rhetoric became increasingly harsh and judgmental, and once-bipartisan programs like food stamps and unemployment insurance became radical redistributionist schemes to reward the “47 percent” – the slackers and moochers who Mitt Romney claimed sought and received “gifts” for supporting Obama.
That’s changing, slowly. Maybe because of polls like the one just completed by Hart Research (on behalf of the National Employment Law Project). Surveying likely 2014 midterm voters the pollsters found they overwhelmingly supported extended benefits 55 to 34 percent. Significantly, key Republican groups like seniors and white non-college educated voters were among the most supportive; white women, a swing group that leaned to the GOP in 2012, support maintaining the benefits 53-33 percent. …
Republicans are on their heels, and some apparently see political pain in continuing to mock the struggles of unemployed Americans – especially the older, white, non-college educated voters who make up their base.
That may explain this:
House Republican leaders sent a memo this week to the entire GOP conference with talking points designed to help rank-and-file Republicans show compassion for the unemployed and explain the Republican position on unemployment benefits. In the memo, which was obtained by The Washington Post, House Republicans are urged to be empathetic toward the unemployed and understand how unemployment is a “personal crisis” for individuals and families.
The Post attaches the actual memo. The message is clear. Do try to pretend you care about these people. At least try. Please? We’re getting killed here. Explain our party’s principles, which will destroy their lives, as something that’s really good for them, if you think about it in certain ways – so follow these instructions. Don’t think too hard. Pretend it all makes sense.
That’s a small and desperate tactical move by the losing side in a much larger war that started fifty years ago this week, although no one paid much attention to the odd war-talk at the time, and LBJ is finally winning this one. Who knew? It was just another boring political speech no high school kids paid any attention to. But it was Pittsburgh, in 1964, where no one was paying attention to anything.