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America's New Poverty: The Poverty That Must Be Defeated

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In this 50th anniversary year of the initiation of the War on Poverty (War), there has been much discussion about the war and its relative success and failure. There has been far too little attention paid, however, to America's new poverty.

That is a poverty of compassion, a poverty of commitment, and a poverty of creativity. Before we examine the nature of those emerging dimensions of poverty, let's reflect on the history of the War on Poverty.

On January 8, 1964, in his State of the Union address President Lyndon Johnson declared "an unconditional war on poverty in America." On January 25, 1988, a mere 24 years later, in his State of the Union address, President Ronald Reagan declared, "the Federal Government declared war on poverty, and poverty won."

Truth be told -- that war was never "unconditional." Nor has "poverty won."

Peter Edelman, Georgetown law professor and author of So Rich, So Poor: Why It's So Hard to End Poverty in America, asserts, "...we never fought an all-out war on poverty." Due to the Vietnam War and other factors, the poverty war was not fully funded even in its early years. John Wofford, one of the first staffers of the Office of Economic Opportunity observes that, "By '65-'66 the budget was cut back extremely. The financial resources to deal with poverty on a broad-based scale were just not there."

Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly attributable to the fact that the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) resources were originally allocated based upon poverty variables as opposed to political ones. According to economist Martha Bailey, "EOA funds flowed to poor and nonwhite areas, which empowered the poor and African-Americans and angered entrenched interests."

The bottom line is that the War on Poverty was "conditional" from the start and continues to be so to this date. In spite of this, the War has produced substantial results. As with most wars, there have been victories and defeats and the War has not ended poverty as we know it.

Given this, our first question is: Is the United States as a nation and we as a people better off because of the War on Poverty? The answer to this is an unequivocal yes regardless of whose data one is looking at.

In January the White House issued aProgress Report citing accomplishments attributable to the war and identifying key areas where work still needs to be done. The Report highlighted the fact that "poverty has declined by more than one-third since 1967."

Based upon their analysis of consumption data, economists Bruce Meyer, University and Chicago, and James Sullivan, Notre Dame, discovered that the poverty rate went from 32 percent in 1963 to 12 percent in 1979 and stood at 8 percent in 2010. A Columbia University study found that without government benefits, the poverty rate would have gone up to 31 percent in 2012.

This brings us to our second question: What is the biggest challenge confronting us in the War on Poverty today? Our answer to that is also unequivocal. It is "America's new poverty": a poverty of compassion, a poverty of commitment, and a poverty of creativity.

A Poverty of Compassion

The most troubling element of this new poverty is what we label the growing "compassion gap" toward those in need between Democrats and Republicans.

The Pew Research Center through its values survey has been tracking attitudes regarding support for the social safety net every five years since 1987 using responses on three statements. The size of the gap for those who responded affirmatively on those items in 1987 compared to 2012 is highlighted below.
  • It's the government's responsibility to take care of people who can't take care of themselves: (1987 D-R Gap+17. 2012 Gap.+35.)
  • The government should help more needy people even if it means going deeper in debt: (1987 Gap+25. 2012 Gap. +45.)
  • The government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep: (1987 Gap+27. 2012 Gap +42.)

The D-R gaps stayed relatively similar in size between 1987 and 2002 and then started to expand. The D-R gap on "take care of people who can't take care of themselves" and "help more people even if it means going more in debt" went up by more than 10 points between the responses in 2007 as opposed to those in 2012.

A Poverty of Commitment

These changes in attitudes of the electorate have been reflected in the tone and tenor of the public debate over the past few years and in policy and legislation which reduces resources being dedicated to help those in need. The most recent examples of this are: the cuts to the food stamps or Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP); and, the failure to extend unemployment insurance benefits.

The cuts to food stamps will be about $800 million per year or $8 billion over the next decade. The Congressional Budget Office estimates they will impact about 850,000 households.

The inability to pass an extension of unemployment insurance means that 1.3 million workers have been without jobless benefits since December 28. As Brad Plumer explains in a Washington Post blog, loss of these benefits matter for a variety of reasons including: most of the long term unemployed are having an extremely difficult time in finding jobs; long term unemployment takes an extreme toll on people's health and well being; and, these benefits are a key source of income for millions of people.

A Poverty of Creativity

Fifty years ago, when the War on Poverty was announced and launched there was no lack of creativity. Bold new programs that impacted poverty such as: enhanced social security, job training programs, Medicare, Job Corps, community action programs, and Head Start were designed and developed at the stroke of a pen or a key on an Underwood typewriter. Since then, the leitmotif has been to criticize programs, to highlight problems, to make incremental changes, and to reduce or eliminate funding rather than to find innovative ways to make things better.

Take Head Start as a case in point. There is an ongoing debate regarding Heat Start's effectiveness. Much of the debate revolves around whether gains in a young pre-school learner's ability are maintained into the early grades (one through three).

Critics cite studies that say there is little to no lasting effect. Defenders cite studies that find a substantial continuing effect. This debate has constrained the funding for and activities of Head Start rather than to find a way to improve its performance and extend its impact.

This seems odd to us. If there is a proven program that works, but its effects are not being sustained, wouldn't the logical, business-like approach be to double down and to devote additional resources at the appropriate intervention point(s) to ensure that learning gains are maintained and enhanced? This ensures an appropriate return on investment as opposed to unrewarded expenditures.

And, now our final question: In light of the New Poverty and where things stand today, does it make sense to continue the War on Poverty? Our answer to that is absolutely -- but with a caveat.

That caveat is that we need to find new and better ways to fight the War on Poverty that transcend political and ideological boundaries. The response to the current poverty context and conditions can not be simply to say stay the course from the left or give the money to the states from the right.

We need to search for and find alternative paradigms and programmatic solutions that are research and evidence based and developed through a process of full and open inquiry. Fortunately, the fiftieth year anniversary of this war has brought a renewed focus and fresh thinking to this critical area.

For example, Peter Edelman spells out "Ten Lessons for the Future" such as: "We can't attack poverty without addressing the question of income..." Michael Gerson suggests renaming the war and "new tactics" such as increasing worker skills and rewards and "encouraging the norm of marriage."

David Brooks recommends a "developmental agenda to help poor children move from birth to middle class." Brooks also advocates that the President create "an opportunity coalition" by bringing bipartisan groups together to build "opportunity and social mobility agendas." Writing for the National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters calls upon the Catholic Church to take a lead in forging solutions through its catholic conferences at the state levels and Catholic Charities directors at the dioceses levels.

The dialogue and discussion has begun. We need to convert this intellectual energy to non-partisan pragmatic plans and the emotional currency required in order to continue to win the battles in the War on Poverty and to vanquish the current poverty of compassion, commitment and creativity. If we do not, America's new poverty will triumph and America and Americans will be much the poorer for it.