January 8, 2014; New York Times
On January 8, 1964, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson declared a “War on Poverty” in his State of the Union address. Fifty years later, there appears to be growing bipartisan support to refocus on this issue and the related issue of soaring income inequality in the United States. Should we in the nonprofit sector be hopeful, cynical, or motivated to act in new ways?
There is some justification to view the increased volume of poverty speechmaking with hope as a potential watershed moment in national policy. The issue is being discussed by leaders of both major political parties in the United States, portending that “poverty is suddenly the subject of bipartisan embrace,” according to the New York Times. Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Florida Senator Marco Rubio have recently promoted strategies such as education reform, workforce training, and converting federal antipoverty program funding to state block grants to break “the vicious cycle of poverty.” President Barack Obama has declared that his 2014 State of the Union speech next week will focus on strategies to address income inequality, such as extended unemployment benefits, college affordability, and minimum wage increases.
Another promising factor is newly elected Pope Francis’s sustained call not only for Catholics, but global leaders to address poverty and inequality. His high profile exhortations over the past few months have the potential to engage religious conservatives into new coalitions around this cause.
Furthermore, the portion of the U.S. population experiencing poverty in the United States has been rising for over 40 years, spanning nearly two generations who presumably care about the issue as a result. While the official poverty rate today, as calculated by the U.S. Census Bureau, is lower than at the start of the War on Poverty (19 percent in 1964 vs. 16 percent in 2012), it has been rising since 1973, when the rate was 11.1 percent. Annual statistics mask the recession’s deeper impact in terms of “temporary” poverty rates: Between 2009 and 2011, one in three Americans experienced at least some months in poverty. More than half of Americans surveyed today say they have at least one family member who is poor.
Finally, income inequality in the United States is at the highest level it’s been since 1928, right before the Great Depression. During the recent recession, the situation worsened, as the top one percent of American households received 95 percent of the country’s income gains between 2009 and 2012. Surely, this should be enough to move public policy toward greater focus on solutions to poverty and income inequality?
But there’s also ample reason to view the “bipartisan embrace” with cynicism regarding whether meaningful political action will result. Already, poverty reduction strategies are becoming fodder for differentiating the overall merits of each party in the run-up to mid-term elections. At the simplest level, the favored strategies depend on whether one believes that government antipoverty programs to date have on balance helped the poor (Democrats) or hurt the poor (Republicans): they reflect the larger debate about the appropriate size and role of government. The promise of a bipartisan approach to a serious social issue could easily devolve into mere tit-for-tat political rhetoric and brinksmanship devoid of any real content.
Equally challenging to progress in Washington are the ideological divisions within each party. Republicans have their “new populists,” party-liners, and Tea Party conservatives. Their challenge is to stay conservative while overcoming perceptions of being “out of touch” or insufficiently compassionate with the poor, as infamously reflected in 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comments. Democrats, while dominated by their Clinton-era pragmatic centrists in recent years, also have an increasingly vocal and liberal populist contingent. Their challenge is to reinvigorate the party’s historical association with the War on Poverty without alienating wealthy donors and pro-business supporters with too much of a class-based “rich vs. poor” framing of income inequality. This diversity on both sides of the aisle makes it difficult for advocates to gain unified political support for bold proposals within their own parties.
Furthermore, even with policy leadership from Congress, there is a bigger problem in terms of general societal concern about the issue in the United States. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center report, barely half of Americans consider income in