Fifty years ago, in the State of the Union address on January 8, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared “war on poverty”. A few months later, Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which had the aim of attacking the roots and consequences of poverty by creating job opportunities, increasing productivity, and enhancing the quality of life - not just ending poverty, but eradicating the main causes of it.
In the decade following, poverty rates in the U.S. indeed dropped to their lowest level since records began in 1958: from 17.3% in 1964 to 11.1% in 1973, when the Office of Economic Opportunities was dismantled by President Nixon (although a number of programs were saved and became part of other government agencies).
Unfortunately, negativism and mistrust prevailed over a constructive criticism that could have made a successful program more effective and efficient.
Constructive criticism is something that we should expect from the minority party and acceptance of this criticism something that we should expect from the majority party, no matter which of the two is in charge. The Common Good depends on it. Instead, cooperation between the two parties on matters that are truly important for the American people and the economy seems to have been quite elusive over the last 50 years. The trend has been “either my way” or “no way”.
The consequences of these choices are still being felt. According to the Census Bureau, 46.5 million Americans are now living in poverty, years after the 2008 recession ended. The average national poverty rate is stuck at 15%. For the first time since 1965, it has remained at or above 15% three years running. Within this rate, depending on the local economy, there are vast disparities. Poverty rates are the lowest in the intensely populated North East corridor, where much of the national wealth is concentrated and a lot higher elsewhere. In Tucson, AZ, the sixth poorest large city in the US, the poverty rate is at 20.4%.
These are the official published poverty rates. How do we arrive at these rates? We calculate them from the official poverty level of income, still defined today as three times a low-cost food budget for a 1960 household, updated annually for inflation and adjusted for the number of people in the household. Anyone living in a household with less income is officially in poverty.
What income is considered? The Census Bureau explains: "The official poverty definition uses cash income before taxes and tax credits (Earned Income Tax Credit) and excludes capital gains and noncash benefits (such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, Medicaid, Section 8 housing assistance and other benefits).
These benefits are what makes life more bearable for people in poverty and their survival possible. Thankfully, when adding all the non-cash benefits, the resulting income of most recipients arrives at or just exceeds the official poverty level.
When one considers that the official poverty level is set at such an unrealistically low level that would never allow self-sufficiency, this seems a meager consolation.
As explained by Jack Murphy in his article above, self-sufficiency allows a family to meet basic needs (including taxes) without public subsidies (public housing, SNAP, Medicaid or child care) and without private/informal assistance (free babysitting by a relative or friend, food from churches or local food banks, or shared housing).” As an example, he cites a study that estimates that it takes more than $50,000 in annual salary for a family of three to live without public assistance, versus the official poverty line for a family of three of $19,790.
Yet certain economists and politicians, looking at how non-cash benefit can raise people at or above the poverty line claim that there is no poverty in the US and continuously push for drastic cuts in those very benefits who barely provide some relief.
This is clearly a self-serving ideological position that completely disregards any evidence of what it takes to bring people to self-sufficiency. Unfortunately, this position has strong financial backers and the mistrust that it creates is pernicious for public assistance programs.
As Vincentians, we need to use the stories of hardship that we hear during home visits to counter this position as much as we can.