A War Worth Fighting

The Republican candidate Mitt Romney got into hot water recently when he said he was so focused on restoring the nation's middle class that he was "not concerned about the very poor." He reasoned that they are covered by the country's social service safety net. But he is wrong to disregard poverty and wrong to think the human dignity of the poor has been adequately protected. But he at least said the "P" word out loud, if inadvertently. So poll-determined is political rhetoric these days, one could be forgiven for thinking the nation consists entirely of struggling members of the middle class. That is not exactly the case, of course.

Decades of not-so-benign neglect have allowed poverty to molder in America's cultural basement even as the bad news on poverty has been unremitting since 2008. The nation currently endures the highest rate of poverty since 1993, at 15.1 percent. Child poverty is particularly bad, at over 20 percent; 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, people who are just above the poverty threshold, and the picture becomes even more depressing—and more accurate—knowing that almost 50 percent of the nation is in a daily struggle to get by.


Despite the gravity of the crisis, there is little enthusiasm in austerity-addled Washington for a redeclaration of the old war on poverty, though much has been said about income disparity and saving the nation's middle class. The church cannot be accused of remaining silent. The U.S. bishops and Catholic Charities USA have repeatedly spoken up for the least among us as the economy has soured.

The problem of poverty has been showing up with greater frequency in the U.S. media, but the issue has not been received by the public with the fervency aroused in past times of economic crisis. It may be that this era still awaits its Michael Harrington, Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange to bring the issue more vividly before the public conscience.

Combating poverty was a big issue in the 1960s and endured, at least as a talking point, into the 1970s, when deindustrialization ravaged the American working class. In the ensuing decades, however, poverty became the fault of the poverty-stricken, too lazy or drug- and alcohol-addicted to take personal responsibility and pull themselves up by those mythological bootstraps. Welfare reform and the boom time that began 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 percent in November 2000.

Those better economic times may have contributed to the hardening of an ideological slogan into a cornerstone of contemporary received wisdom—that government programs "can't beat" poverty, and it is a waste of money even to try. But it should be recalled that President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty generated perhaps the greatest movement out of poverty in the nation's history, cutting the level of national poverty in half, from 22 percent in 1962 to just above 11 percent in 1973. The impact on the African-American community was also dramatic, reducing poverty from 55 percent in 1959 to 33 percent by 1970. And in our own time various measures taken by the federal government since the great collapse of 2008—like preserving Medicaid and S-chip, the payroll tax cut and extensions of unemployment payments—have saved millions from falling into a deep poverty from which they and their children might never have recovered.

It was refreshing to hear President Obama acknowledge America's poor and the biblical injunction to respond to their cry at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 2. And it is encouraging that poverty in the United States is once again making it above the fold in print and digital media. Can the renewed coverage shame enough people in power in both the public and private sectors to do more to respond to the nation's poverty crisis?

Americans may not be able to work up the cultural or fiscal energy for another effort on the scale of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, but more specific attention to the plight of the poor by maintaining social lifelines and redoubled efforts at job creation and retraining seem warranted. In 1986 President Reagan famously noted that the nation had declared war on poverty and "poverty won." But that is not exactly how it went, in fact. The nation enjoyed then, as it does now, a peace dividend generated by the War on Poverty that has prevented a return to the high levels of poverty last seen in the oft-presumed golden era of the 1950s. One thing is certain: defeat will always be a dependable outcome if U.S. policymakers surrender the field without firing a shot.

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Christopher Mulcahy
7 years ago

A prerequisite for fighting poverty is to understand what it is and what can be done about it.  Poverty is and remains the natural state of man.  To rise above poverty requires certain habits of mind and behavior that occur only when God's rules are followed.  Every success, spiritual, psychological, social and economic flows from right understanding of man's place in the universe.  Every true child of God experiences the dignity of his identity and is therefore empowered to proceed in life to fulfill his destiny.  And the economic destiny of man, with the exception of freely chosen poverty, is to be sustained in his various needs.

"Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.”

To imply that “the poor” require income transfers from others, a la the Johnson war on poverty, is to give up on the poor.  Such a policy is damaging to the individual, implying as it does that he is not capable of recognizing his own gifts and skills and finding his own way.

It is the task of the Church, in part, to focus on a right understanding of man and helping the individual to recognize his personal dignity and capability. It is an abrogation of the Church’s responsibility to buy into the social justice globalony of income transfer.

Leonard Villa
7 years ago
It's not simply a matter of economics or throwing money at poverty which has not worked.  Programs like the Great Society have been colossal failures.  A culture of dependency on government promotes poverty.  The welfare laws which warred on the family have created poverty by attacking the family and rewarding illegitimacy. Pat Moynihan years ago pointed out the disintegration of the family in the African-American community and this has spread to whites and others ethnic communities as well.It's not an accident that one of the cardinal principles of Catholic social teaching is the nuclear family as the building-block of society and that includes rising from poverty: father, mother, children in a stable union.

Moreover what is the definition of poor today when often "the poor" have housing, cars, DVD players, flat screens, all the amenities while on the public dole?  The culture wars (as did Mother Theresa) highlight the growing spiritual poverty of our country which you did not note.  Pope Benedict in his Lenten message highlights them especially fraternal correction.  The other spiritual works of mercy: instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, bear wrongs patiently, forgive all injuries, comfort the sorrowful.  Poverty is not simply about this world.  You would do well to promote the Church's teaching on family and sexuality to help strengthen the nuclear family as a response to proverty while combatting moral relativism and the war on the traditonal family.
7 years ago
More words from the right indivulists.
Where in Catholic teaxchiong does it say poverty is the natural state of man?Income disparity and problems for more have arisen  over the past years, but "traditional values" want to undrmine the safety net?
Comments like the first two make me wondwer about how the Church's social justice teaching has been preached.

7 years ago

The use of percentage figures in describing the poor, rather than their number, is an unfortunate error. If possible, insert the numbers, otherwise the excellent piece lacks a human touch, to say nothing of its failure to educate the general reader who indeed would like to know the numbers of humn beings who suffer in poverty. It's like reporting a maritime disaster and stating that 50% of the passengers aboard the stricken vessel died.


7 years ago
Excellent editorial!   Thank you for putting this subject on the table.   Americans are smart and generous.  We just have to work together and focus on the common good. 

Great points from the above comments.
C Walter Mattingly
7 years ago
Hard to read Moynihan's groundbreaking report on the effect of the Great Society programs upon the families and general societies of the underclass and desire a return to that debacle. Charles Murray provides more recent material on the subject.
E.Patrick Mosman
7 years ago

Poor and poverty are in the eyes of the money dispensers, the federal and state governments. Somalia is poor and poverty stricken with starvation rampant and people dying. The Sudan is poor and poverty stricken with starvation rampant and people dying.. It can be seen in photos and TV news in the drawn faces of adults and in the withered bodies of children. Real poverty exists in many countries where death is the end all and be all. .In America, obesity, not starvation, seems to be the bane of those the government labels as poor. Food stamps are available, even to a family of 4 with an annual income of $80,000 with no control on what foods are drink can be purchased. The poor in America have housing grants, subsidized smart phones, free breakfast, lunch and in some places dinners at public schools and so on..  Is this really what is meant by poor and poverty stricken?  Or is it a means to an end to create an underclass  of citizens forever dependent on the government.
Tom Maher
7 years ago
Kevin Clark ( # 8)

Walter Mattingly knows American history remarkably detail.  You are missing the point he is trying to make and the proper historical context.

Moynihan as a key advisor to Presient Nixon in 1969 and 1970 had heavy criticism of certain implementations and  provisions of Great Society programs.  He was not against the concept of the governement helping needy people.   However Moynihan realized that government programs often fail to do what they are supposed to do and further often by unintended consequences create severe new problems.  For example Moynihan was definitely concerned that the people receiving government assistance may become depended on such assistance for there entire life and multiple generations of their children's lives.  He proposed reforms and incentives that would actually help people out of poverty.

Moynihan was one of the the first welfare reformers. He was the architect and legislative promoter to President Nixon's "Family Assistant Plan" which was design to reform and better finance Aid to Family with Dependent Children and other federal welfare programs.  This legislation passed In 1970 in the House of Reperesenttaive but did not pass the Senate.   Many of his welfare reforms were finally made years later in1996 such as requiring work or training be performed by anyone on welfare without pre-school children and were quite successful. in stopping multi-generational welfare dependency.  
E.Patrick Mosman
7 years ago
If the editors had delved more deeply into the actual support provided the "poor" Mr.Romney's statement ""not concerned about the very poor."  would be would be understood.
The following article provides details on government aid provided to the poor.
While some may quibble over the precise numbers it becomes obvious that the 'poor' in America have a bundle of Federal and State programs that essentially preclude work as a way out of being poor. 
7 years ago

More from the right - Mr. Moosman thinks poor people sit around all day depending on the government  to make life wonderful for them/.
He can find an article to support this purblind view  whicjh is very out of touch with both reality in peipe's lives and the traidtions of the Church.
I'm sure he's happy though in his smug comfortable views of the poor he looks down on!


7 years ago
Good presentation!  One thing though: the money Mitt (whom you have deemed as disregarding poverty) contributed to his Church did help the poor. Obama's statement at the Prayer Breakfast had nothing to do with the poor and only to do with raising taxes on the rich (politics) - do you really think the taxes he pushes for will go to the poor?  Keep the politics out of this and your argument is stronger.
E.Patrick Mosman
7 years ago
Since I do not know you and you do not know me your comments are without merit.
The facts presented show that those labeled poor and even not so  poor receive  benefits from the federal and state governemnts while a picture is painted by editorials such as this one that the poor are being ignored.
I am a firm believer in the charitable giving practiced by Mr.(tax me more ) Buffett.
We should all be able to follow what Buffett practices:
Buffett avoids the Buffett Rule
In a 2007 CNBC interview, when asked why he shelters his money through tax-free strategies rather than writing big checks to Uncle Sam, Mr. Buffett responded: "I think that on balance the Gates Foundation, my daughter's foundation, my two sons' foundations will do a better job with lower administrative costs and better selection of beneficiaries than the government."
So Mr. Buffett thinks he and his family can put their money to better use than the government can. I guess he's really not so different from the rest of us after all."
One dollar given to a local charity 85 - 90 percent reaches the poor, out of one dollar extracted as a tax  it goes first to pay salaries and benefits and thne can be used for any purpose.
I trust you give to your church and other charities.
John Loeffler
7 years ago
For some reason Catholics can't seem to grapple with the basics about where the country is:  Almost $16T in debt with unfunded liabilities in excess of $60T.  Debt to GDP ratio is worse than Greece and we have a sovereign debt crisis headed our way.  The amounts of debt are crippling and cannot be managed without national bankruptcy or severe austerity and inflation programs.   Bottom Line:  The government's ability to support social programs of any kind in the immediate future is collapsing.  But there's good news!  If Catholics are concerned about the poor, they can pony up their own money to help the poor so God gets the glory instead of the government, just as Christ instructed us to do.  (P.S. The Church's position on contraceptive services is morally sound, but when you take money from the dragon, you're making a deal with the devil and he will demand his due.) 
C Walter Mattingly
6 years 12 months ago
Thank you for your response.
First, I want to make sure we are referring to the same report. I presume we are, as you reference "The Negro Family: The Case for Action." You then go on to state the report was based on data collected between 1948-1961, before Johnson's Great Society program was enacted.

What causes me to doubt that statement is that in this report Moynihan references a study dated October, 1963.  (See the most controversial and influential section of Moynihan's report, "Tangle of Pathology.")

One of the more authoritative voices on the conservative side of this issue, Kay Hymowitz (her work is also referenced in Patricia Cohen's NYTimes essay, 10/18/2010, "Culture of Poverty Makes a Comeback"), assesses the historical development of the situation in her article, "The Black Family," where she points out how that section rankled those whose influence and standing (and often income) depended on entitlement expansion. Moynihan's essay exempted the black middle class from his discussion, which was doing fine, and focused upon the troubled inner city black population. He stressed that the child learns from the adult family structure in which he finds himself. In this disoriented, pathological environment, the child learns that adults don't finish school, get jobs, and in the case of men, take care of their children or obey the law. Moynihan suggests that marriage orients men and women toward the future, to commit to each other, to plan, to save, to earn, and to devote themselves toward advancing their children's prospects. By contrast, single mothers in the inner city have a tendency to drift into pregnancy, often more than once and from more than one man. Moynihan went on to say that such matters "are unlikely to shape their children's character and ability in ways that lead to upward mobility." 

Initially, President Johnson was highly impressed with Moynihan's creative perspective and mentioned the family issue in early 1965. Unfortunately, civil rights leaders were all over Moynihan in protest. Core director Floyd McKissick fumed that, rather than the family, "it's the damn system that needs changing." Social injustice, past and present, not family pathology, was the issue. National Urban League's Whitney Young chimed in that family stability was a "peripheral issue." CORE activist William Ryan accused Moynihan of "blaming the victim: in his essay, "Savage Discovery: The Moynihan Report."

Before this onslaught, President Johnson caved. His next White House conference on civil rights in late 1965 did not even mention the word "family." And so Moynihan's insight was wasted. In 1967, Moynihan lamented that the nation had disastrously failed on Johnson's most profound aspect of the battle. "The issue of the Negro family was dead."

Feminists of the time also lambasted Moynihan's central thesis to overturn "the oppresive ideal of the nuclear family," portraying the single mother as a superior, "strong black woman." That may have been the case, but she was too often a struggling and poor one as well.

It was not until the 1990's that a president was to pick up on Moynihan's themes. Bill Clinton stated early in his presidency, "We cannot renew our country when, within a decade, more than half of our children will be born into families where there is no marriage." And he backed up that statement, declaring that welfare as known was over, removing over 5 million from the welfare ranks, with the majority moving into productive employment. That is not unrelated to the fact that Bill Clinton is the only recent president who obtained both economic growth and a financial surplus during his administration.

And Clinton was prescient. In 1963, 77% of inner city black children had a mother and father at home. Recently, that number was half that, about 38%.

How do we impact this culture, which Moynihan described as patholigical and dysfunctional? One answer would be to encourage these single mothers and troubled parents to avoid conception and to abort children they conceive. Another would be to provide these children a culture of committed parents, or if missing, a maximum chance to complete school, and the moral discipline of delayed gratification. America, in my opinion, should celebrate such studies as that of their own Loyola Marymount that inner city LA children who attend parochial schools graduate at a 98% rate as opposed to their public school counterpart's 69% rate. You would think that would make America especially proud of the Jesuit contribution in this area and would press the idea of making vouchers available to all those inner city students so they could be exposed to the morality and discipline of delayed gratification that would permit them to escape this culture of dysfunction, yet in recent years, in my opinion, that has not had the editorial coverage here that it warrents. I suspect that would be the case if our current president weren't so dead-set against providing such vouchers (and other things Catholic as well). 
Valentine O'Connor
6 years 12 months ago
I enjoyed your article. I think we as a society lump all poverty together and the only way to defeat it is to identify the causes and elliminate them. We do our communities a disservice when we lump addiction, mental illness, and all of the other poverty causers together. Our children are the innocent victims.

We as a society have allowed and rewarded bad behavior such as single parent familys and all of the other hot button issues of today the encourage the destruction of the family unit. When we do not promote family values we help create poverty.

I pray that we all look for things that cause poverty and do our best to get involved and eliminate the causes. Do not sit on the fence when society pushes something that you know is destructive to the family unit in the name of political correctness.

Remember the family unit is the building block of society. We can be firm in our convictions and still be compasionate and kind to others who do not share our values.
6 years 11 months ago

My father (RIP) often said, “Paper is patient.  You can print anything on it.”  Today’s media is even more patient.  Whether print, radio, TV or the internet all kinds of things are said or written without any substantiation.  This is feeding both the gullible and the skeptical.  I tend to fall into the latter category and really appreciate writers and editors who substantiate what is being reported.  Possibly feeding that skepticism is my engineering background where facts can be more readily corroborated. 

From that perspective I would encourage the writers of this editorial to provide more data at appropriate places.  For example, in the second paragraph, the line “… poverty has hit crisis levels, approaching percentages last seen in the late 60’s ...” could use numerical values for perspective: what were the percentages in the late 60’, here in 2012, and at some time between there when the numbers were less critical.  Then the sources of the numbers would help reduce skepticism – like formal numbers from US Census or the like.   

Blaming my engineering background for my naïveté, I am sorry but I do not recognize the names of Michael Harrington, Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange in the fourth paragraph.  How many other readers would similarly not recognize them?

Concerning the main issue of the article, I would like to comment on my current experiences with poverty.  I am a member of a Corpus Christi parish in northwest Detroit.  I have been a volunteer for at least 35 years and am currently a deacon and a pastoral associate there.  I wish you could ride in a car with me through our neighborhood that, until recently, provided decent housing for poor to middle class WORKING people.  Today many homes are abandoned, shuttered and ransacked.  Who’s fault?  NOT the prior residents!


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