Our View: To reduce poverty, we need new energy and new ideas

January 13, 2014 

There are still too many poor people in America, but it’s time to change tactics in how we combat that problem.

When you reach a milestone such as the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, it calls for some genuine reflection. We think it’s time to stop characterizing our nation’s efforts to create a society in which everyone has a chance as a war. The tired arguments over whether or not we won that war are counterproductive and serve only to mire us in the political wallow.

Conservatives might win some political points by saying the war on poverty has been an abject failure and that the federal government should dismantle its safety net programs. But they would be flat wrong. The official poverty rate has dropped from 19.5 percent in 1963 to 15 percent in 2012. Yes, the actual number of Americans in poverty has grown by 10 million, but in 1963 there were 190 million Americans; in 2014 there are 315 million.

For millions, life would be much worse without anti-poverty programs. We have to recall that before Medicare and increases in Social Security, many elderly Americans lived in squalor without health care. Before food stamps, millions of families went hungry. Before Head Start, poor children began school far behind kids from better-off families and far too often remained behind the rest of their lives.

In California, safety net programs kept nearly 4 million residents, including 1 million children, out of poverty from 2009 to 2011, according to an analysis of census data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

Still, there is much work to do.

The poverty rate in California rose from 12 percent in 2006 to nearly 16 percent in 2012. More than 6 million people, including 2.1 million children, are officially poor. Nationwide in 2012, 46.5 million Americans lived below the poverty line, including 16 million children.

“The idea that so many children are born into poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth is heartbreaking enough,” President Barack Obama said in an important speech last month. “But the idea that a child may never be able to escape that poverty because she lacks a decent education or health care or a community that views her future as their own – that should offend all of us.”

To mark the anniversary of Johnson’s declaration, Obama pushed again for “promise zones” – areas in some of America’s poorest communities where job, housing, education and law enforcement aid would be targeted. The zones would get preference for federal grants and possible tax incentives.

The first five zones are to be in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Antonio, the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Appalachian region of southeast Kentucky – where Johnson first focused as he rolled out his Great Society programs. The premise makes some sense. Groundbreaking research suggests that a metropolitan area’s economic layout plays a major role in determining whether the poor can climb into the middle class or beyond.

The president also emphasized his openness to any ideas. There’s no shortage. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, proposes giving federal money to the states in the form of block grants so they could figure out how to reduce poverty. Maria Shriver, California’s former first lady, says we need to focus on helping and empowering poor women.

Big government programs aren’t always the answer. And neither are the bromides so frequently tossed around – that it’s all the fault of education, or the fault of the poor themselves, or that some people are just lazy. All that does is reduce the debate to name-calling.

Long-term trends in the global economy – the decline of blue-collar jobs and the rise of technology, for instance – make reducing poverty a steeper challenge. And the challenges here – in a region often called “the Appalachia of the West” – are steep enough as it is.

Yet we can’t just give up. We must become even more committed. That is what our ideals tell us to do. That is what we owe to our fellow Americans.

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