fresh voices from the front lines of change







As the House of Representatives prepared to vote Thursday on a bill that would cut $40 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as “food stamps,” three economic experts denounced the conservative underpinnings of what they describe as a shift from a “war on poverty” to “a war on the poor.”

The three – Sheldon Danziger, president of the Russell Sage Foundation; Martha Bailey, professor of economics at the University of Michigan; and Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington – discussed findings of a new book, “Legacies of the War on Poverty,” published by the Russell Sage Foundation. Danziger and Bailey are co-editors of the book.

“What changed in the United States that we switched from the War on Poverty to the War on the Poor?” Bernstein asked rhetorically during a news media call, noting that conservatives are “dead set on gutting SNAP, the Affordable Care Act, Pell Grants, etc.”

That is one of the key questions probed in the book. Another key question is whether it is true, as Ronald Reagan is quoted to have said, that “in the 1960s we waged a war on poverty, and poverty won.”

“The War on Poverty was written off as a failure very early on. It gets repeated so many times that people falsely believe that federal programs don’t work,” Bailey said.President Lyndon B. Johnson first declared the War on Poverty in his 1964 State of the Union address, laying out an agenda to decrease the percentage of Americans below the poverty level, increase education, tend to the health and financial needs of the elderly, and improve the safety net for the poor and unemployed. The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, Food Stamp Act of 1964, Social Security Act of 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and other federal programs such as Head Start, the implementation of work-study programs, and Medicare and Medicaid all contributed to the poverty level decreasing from 19 percent to 11 percent in just a decade.

But Danziger said that one reason poverty rates have increased since then to today’s 15 percent is because “the economy changed in ways that none of the War on Poverty planners could have expected.” He went on to state that if it had not been for our most recent economic setbacks, the progress made in the 1970s due to Johnson’s policies would have continued at the same rates and “we wouldn’t be having this conversation”.

But instead of addressing the effects of these setbacks, such as wage stagnation for working-class households and the monopolization of income gains by the top 1 percent of earners, congressional Republicans are slashing federal programs that aid the poor and fiercely guarding the corporate interests of the wealthy few.

The House of Representatives, for example, is moving toward a vote that would lead to a government shutdown unless there is a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, in which “11 million Americans would lose coverage they would have otherwise gained next year,” Bernstein said.

The cuts in the SNAP program that were sent to the House floor would cut 3.8 million people from food stamp rolls next year by making it harder for families to qualify. Their plan would force 14 million people from the program by 2023, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

However, cutting food stamp benefits would not help eliminate poverty – it would just cut benefits to people who need them most. Danziger, responding to arguments raised by conservatives about the increasing number of people who are receiving food stamp benefits, said, “If you want to reduce [the need for people using] food stamps, you don’t do it by cutting food stamp benefits.”

The War on Poverty’s programs have had extremely positive long-term effects. Medicare and Medicaid have led to almost totally universal coverage for the elderly. Pell Grants expanded opportunities for young people to access higher education, in which without, gaps would be much larger. Head Start programs have allowed poor children greater opportunities for educational success.

Bailey discussed the role that government policies have played in alleviating poverty, saying that “cutting poverty programs now affects long-term growth.” For example, the food stamp program in the 1960s and 1970s led to children having better health to grow into healthy adults, which was a “good investment” for the government. “Poor children are increasingly falling behind,” she said, and without access to early preschool and prekindergarten programs due to cuts, the gap between the rich and poor will continue to grow.

The book shows that poverty is at the level it is today not because federal programs failed, but because of economic strains made worse for those trying to edge their way up the economic ladder by failed conservative economic policy. Conservatives who want to cut benefits need to look at that bigger picture, and to policies that would create more jobs at higher wages as well as policies that would protect the economic supports for those who need them. “People see what is, not what might have been,” Danziger said.

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