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War on the Poor - Which Side Are You On?

There is nothing new about poverty. What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it. The time has come for an all-out world war against poverty … The well off and the secure have too often become indifferent and oblivious to the poverty and deprivation in their midst. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for “the least of these.”

--Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today, we celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King. We recall the impact he had on civil rights and voting rights, and his specific actions in places like Montgomery, Selma, Washington, D.C., and Memphis. It is also useful to remember that, had he not been murdered, Dr. King would have continued to wage his war on poverty.

At the time of his murder, Dr. King’s anti-poverty crusade was considered the most radical aspect of his agenda, but it was of a piece with the government policy of President Lyndon Johnson, as embodied in LBJ’s Great Society programs. Dr. King’s issue with the President, however, was that the futile and destructive Vietnam War drained financial and moral support for his domestic programs. By the end of the 1960s, the war on poverty was effectively over. President Nixon won the election in part by invoking the “silent majority” (a group he never specified but who likely did not include the poor and people of color) and stated, “Black Americans, no more than white Americans, they do not want more government programs which perpetuate dependency. They don't want to be a colony in a nation.”

The argument against government assistance for the poor continued under subsequent presidents. Ronald Reagan famously invoked the image of a “welfare queen” and stated, “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

The retreat from anti-poverty policies also continued under Bill Clinton, who signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, a cornerstone of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America”. Broad analysis of this law’s impacts is mixed, but as a Washington Post analysis noted last year:

the intergenerational transmission of poverty has only accelerated. Children raised on welfare after reform are even more likely to depend on public assistance as adults than the previous generation. In this sense, Clinton's welfare reform failed to accomplish one of its main goals: to give young people a better chance to provide for themselves without the government's help.

President Obama’s major policy initiatives included responding to the financial crisis of 2008 and passing the Affordable Health Care Act. Final numbers show that these policies had an overall positive effect on the economy: over 11 million jobs added, a reduction in the unemployment rate (which continues today), a rise in household income and earnings, and a reduction in the poverty rate. Obama’s policies, however, were not marketed as poverty-reduction initiatives, perhaps because a large portion of the governing class in Washington and in state governments were opposed to programs explicitly assisting the poor—likely still in thrall to Reagan’s anti-government message.

Today, rather than a war on poverty, we have what I have been calling a War on the Poor--a crusade promoted both by President Trump and his Republican allies in Congress. This has manifested itself in many ways, including:

  • The failure to extend the CHIP program providing health insurance to children

  • Recently authorized Medicaid work requirements, making people in certain states work in order to have federal health insurance

  • Demonizing and deporting needy immigrants, while planning to end the temporary protected status of immigrants from El Salvador and Haiti (Guatemala may be next)

  • Evisceration of environmental protections and opening of formerly protected national monuments and reserves to mining and oil exploration (most negatively affecting Native Americans and those in poverty, who are forced to live closest to these areas)

  • Fiscal policies, as evidenced by the Republican tax cut of 2017—the benefits of which overwhelmingly go to the wealthy without commensurate benefit to people at the lowest end of the economic spectrum

  • Divisive presidential rhetoric about the poor and people of color, which prominent Republican politicians defend by their silence

The War on the Poor is driven by the canard that the most marginalized populations (poor people, immigrants from developing nations, and people of color) are the cause of our economic woes. This deliberately ignores the extensive government support for corporations and people of wealth (through direct subsidies and generous tax incentives); these amount to far more than those taken by people in poverty. But if you are a critic of anti-poverty programs, it is of course useful not to highlight examples of government largess that benefit you.

On this holiday honoring Martin Luther King, politicians, Republicans included, will roll out the platitudes. Someone even got his or her hands on Trump’s twitter account to write an anodyne message praising Dr. King's dream. But these are empty words if they ignore the last fight of Dr. King’s life. Republicans who actively wage the War on the Poor have no standing to invoke Dr. King, but Democrats too are complicit to the extent that they fail to address ongoing policies that keep a number of our citizens in poverty. As Dr. King famously stated in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail: “Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

On this day, and going forward, good people should take a stand, namely:

In the War on the Poor, which side are you on?

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