09/11/2012 04:12 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2012

We Need a New War on Poverty -- Not the Same Old War on the Poor

Did millions of Americans suddenly become lazy? If you are to believe a recent Republican campaign statement, you might believe it. According to this latest lie -- or distortion, if you wish to be generous -- the Obama administration's decision to give states more flexibility in how they run federally-subsidized programs for the poor eliminates or weakens the existing work requirements. The implication is that Obama -- characterized by Newt Gingrich as "the Food Stamp President" -- is encouraging laziness and dependency. The truth is that, in order to receive this waiver, states must demonstrate greater effectiveness in moving people back into the workforce and Republican governors have been among those pressing for such waivers. Interestingly, Mitt Romney requested just such a waiver when he was Governor of Massachusetts.

So, what is going on here? Clearly, it is another sign that the Republicans have upped the ante in their long-term war on the poor and their use of dog-whistle politics to stigmatize poor people as different from the rest of us and unworthy of assistance of any kind. It is, of course, highly divisive and intended to convince working people to vote against their own interests. This is not new. Back in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan would regale audiences with his tale of the "welfare queen" who drove to the public assistance office in a Cadillac to pick up her fraudulently obtained government benefits. As Robert Lekachman reported back then in Greed Is Not Enough: Reaganomics, nobody was ever able to locate this individual but she and the supposed legions of others like her were used to justify massive cuts to the social safety net and the three-decade long process of redistributing more of the nation's resources to the already wealthy.

So, here we are again, using misrepresentation of the poor to justify treating them as we would not wish to be treated, if we found ourselves in similar circumstances. Until very recently, most Americans would never have conceived of themselves as ever being at risk of joining the ranks of the poor and could comfortably embrace the stereotypes. But economic trends over the last couple of decades and, quite dramatically since 2008, are providing a rude awakening for millions of newly poor middle class individuals and their families. They did not suddenly become lazy. Nor are they much different from anyone else they find themselves in line with at the welfare office, food bank, or thrift store.

So, who are these people? More than fifty million Americans -- over 15 percent of the population, over 21 percent of our children -- fall below the official poverty line which is $22,400 per year for a family of four. This is the absolute minimum the Federal Government says is required for basic subsistence. However, neither the Federal Government nor any state government provides that amount which is why we have 50 million people living in poverty.

This is the largest number and highest percentage in five decades -- up from 11 percent in 1973. Those earlier figures were nothing to be proud of in the richest country in the world but we thought the trend was moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, we were wrong. Were those 11 percent simply lazy and unmotivated to better themselves? Not at all. Many were working full-time in minimum or sub-minimum wage jobs that did not raise them out of poverty. Others were in that part of the workforce -- 4 percent at least but often much higher -- whose unemployment was considered necessary in order to keep wages down and inflation under control. Some were elderly, sick or disabled. The great majority were children. The same applies to today's 15 percent.

In effect, we have had national policies that have condemned millions of Americans to live in dire need. And we have justified our indifference to their plight by citing self-serving but seriously flawed economic theories that claim to promote the greater good and by defining the poor as different from the rest of us. However, those who work with individuals and families who fall into poverty know that they are different from us only in their lack of sufficient income to raise them above the poverty line. Their work ethic, their sense of personal responsibility, their wish to provide for themselves and their families and, despite their current predicament, their patriotism and belief in the American Dream are the same. They just want the chance to participate in that Dream but face enormous obstacles, mainly because the economic and political decks are heavily stacked against them.

As Tavis Smiley and Cornel West found in their recent 18-city "Poverty Tour and Call to Conscience," and reported in their book, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto:

Candidates for high office, protected with gilded lives of wealth and privilege, seem to know nothing about poverty or the poor. They claim to be concerned about the middle class but they must have missed the memo; the new poor are the former middle class.

And, what is being done to address the problems of the poor, the newly poor middle class, and the near poor who are only a paycheck or serious illness away from joining the rest? Smiley and West sum up the situation as follows:

Because both major political parties are so dependent on big campaign contributions from the rich who benefit from loopholes and tax breaks, politicians are hesitant or lack the will to utter the 'p' word in the public space.

This is a national disgrace and all of us who are outraged by this state of affairs must do everything in our power to call out those political leaders who continue to make war on the poor for their own selfish political and economic advantage and insist that we undertake a twenty-first century war on poverty by, among other things, promoting full employment by all means necessary, requiring employers to pay a living wage, reversing the redistribution of wealth and income that has occurred by making the tax system sufficiently progressive, and repairing the social safety net for the most vulnerable members of our society. There is more that can and should be done but these measures would be a good start towards returning us to the type of country we claim to be.