Is the problem of poverty, or at least covering poverty, coming back in style? Decades of not-so-benign neglect has allowed poverty to molder in America’s cultural basement, and the bad news on poverty in America has been unremitting for years now. The nation currently endures the highest rates of poverty since 1993 at 15.1 percent; child poverty is particularly bad at over 20 percent (those kids should get to work, as Newt might say) and within the nation’s African American community poverty has hit crisis levels, approaching percentages last seen in the late 1960s. Add in the near poor, folks who are technically above the poverty threshold but still just getting by, and the picture would be even more depressing (if more realistic).
Amid all that bad news, however, there is little talk in austerity-addled Washington about a renewed War on Poverty, though much has been said about income disparity and saving the nation’s middle class. That’s really all part of the same package, of course, and it seems that more people are beginning to make the connection. Faithful readers know they can always find dire warnings on poverty here at America and other “niche” social-justicey publishers, but, if I’m not crazy, it seems like the issue has become white hot in the mainstream press recently.
After a number of articles suggesting that members of Congress were so out of touch on the poverty problem because of their own growing wealth (much like their difficulty understanding the health care crisis while enjoying personally perhaps the best health plans in the nation), other recent pieces have blasted the myth of American social mobility which has long been deployed to wave off concerns over wealth (read, power) disparities. Now the Nation, which it must be said, certainly has covered the heck out of U.S. poverty, is beginning a blog series for 2012, “This week in poverty.”
Combatting poverty was a big issue in the 1960s--and it was covered like a big issue--when it was connected to the Civil Rights movement and at least endured as a talking point in the 1970s when deindustrialization ravaged the American working class. In the ’80s and ’90s, however, poverty became the fault of the poverty stricken, too lazy or drug- and alcohol-addled to take personal responsibility and pull themselves up by those mythological bootstraps, too uneducated to handle an oar when that rising water lifted all boats. Welfare reform and the boomtime beginning in the mid-90s knocked poverty off the front pages as the nation enjoyed record levels of job growth. Unemployment plummeted from more than 7 percent in 1993 to just 4.0 percent in November 2000,and unemployment for African Americans and Latinos fell to the lowest rates on record.
Those go-go days may have contributed to the hardening of a fluffy piece of conservative propaganda into a cornerstone of contemporary received wisdom. That government programs can’t “beat” poverty and it’s a waste of money to even try. But Johnson’s War on Poverty, it should be recalled, generated perhaps the greatest movement out of poverty in the nation’s history, lowering the level of national poverty from 22 percent in 1962 to just above 11 percent in 1973 when the program began to be unwound by President Nixon and succeeding administrations. The impact on the African American community was even more dramatic, reducing poverty from 55 percent in 1959 to 33 percent by 1970. And in our own time only the most ideologically blinkered will argue that the federal government’s various anti-poverty interventions since the great collapse of 2008 have not prevented millions from falling into a deep poverty from which they and their children may never have recovered.
It’s great that U.S. poverty is once again making it above the fold in U.S. print and digital media. Now let’s see if the coverage can shame enough people in power in both the public and private sectors to do more to respond to the nation’s poverty crisis. In 1986 President Reagan famously mocked the Great Society program, noting that the nation had declared war on poverty and “poverty won.” (That’s not exactly how it really went, the nation enjoyed in Reagan's time, as it does now, a “peace dividend” generated by the war on poverty. Though poverty has certainly grown in recent years, the U.S. has not returned to the levels seen in the oft-presumed golden era of the 1950s.) No offense to the great communicator--in a war on poverty, there will always be disagreements about the most effective means of mitigating poverty--but one thing is certain: defeat will always be a dependable outcome if U.S. policymakers surrender the field without firing a shot.