Continuing the war
The issue of poverty has been center stage in recent days, partly because of the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty and partly because of the widening inequality that has narrowed the opportunities open to millions of Americans.
The debate in recent days has been far-reaching. Gov. Peter Shumlin has engaged with the issue, offering several modest but timely initiatives to help people in dire straits. Beyond the borders of Vermont the debate has underscored a fundamental philosophical divide about what is the most effective and morally sound way to help those in need.
It has been conservative dogma since the days of Ronald Reagan that LBJ’s War on Poverty was a failure. We know now the many ways it has succeeded, not in eliminating poverty, but in reducing the number of people in poverty and in diminishing its sting.
Conservatives argue that food stamps and other benefits have failed to eliminate poverty. But a widely cited study from Columbia University found that the poverty rate in 2012 would have reached 31 percent without government benefits. That’s a lot of people who were not evicted from their homes or forced into soup kitchens because they had access to benefits. The fact that those millions did not become destitute does not eliminate the want that placed them in their predicament, but it diminishes human suffering and allows the beneficiaries to maintain a decent level of living while they work to better their lot. Casting them into abject poverty may have taught them a lesson, but it would not improve their prospects for independence.
It is useful to think back to the way things were before the war on poverty. The hunger and impoverishment of Appalachia became well known 50 years ago, as did hunger in the Mississippi Delta. Vermont is a northern extension of the Appalachian Mountains, and we need to recall the levels of poverty that existed here as well. It was not romantic and bucolic. People suffered and did without.
There are strands of truth on both sides of the argument. The availability of benefits that allow people to survive poverty has the effect in some cases of fostering dependency. There were two great migrations during the past century occasioned by hardship. These were the migration of African-Americans to the north and west and the migration of Dust Bowl refugees to the west. The people left behind, in many cases, remain in economically marginal regions lacking in opportunity, and dependence on government benefits is common. The alternative is to subject them to the hunger and want prevalent during the Great Depression.
More common is the hardship occasioned by economic turbulence that forces people out of their jobs, depriving them of income to pay for the basics. Even many people who work cannot pay for the basics, which is why the minimum wage ought to be raised. Vermont’s welfare programs are designed to help people who have slipped back and are threatened by the disaster of losing their homes or going without food. Children are the most vulnerable among the low-income population, and Vermont’s programs focus on helping families keep children healthy.
Early childhood education, school lunches, food stamps — all these keep children attuned in school, which is crucial to helping them rise out of poverty. Children do not choose poverty, and even if we believe their parents are at fault, we ought to recognize the importance of protecting children from the hard edge of poverty.
Among Shumlin’s initiatives is an effort to focus substance abuse and mental health treatment on those in the state’s welfare program, Reach Up. There is a persistent population of people in the state who have chronic difficulties in coping. They are a costly drain on all of us. Family dysfunction that includes drug abuse, crime, domestic violence and dependency on government programs touches a small number of hard-to-treat people, but, for the sake of children and to prevent worse problems, the state’s resources must go there. The fact of this persisting challenge should not undermine public support for the larger proportion of people who have simply fallen on hard times and need help to get back on their feet.
We have gotten away from the Reaganesque belief that the nation’s gravest problem is the welfare queen with the Cadillac. A graver problem is the kind of poverty that has mired millions of people, including too many in Vermont. There are ways to alleviate the pain where poverty impinges on individual lives while pursuing macroeconomic solutions to help the economy as a whole toward greater prosperity. In recent years, the nation’s increased prosperity has been reserved for only a few.