January will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty, but what is most notable today is how impoverished our discussion of poverty is. Political leaders in both parties pledge to save the “middle class,” because polls show that most Americans consider themselves part of the broad middle.
Democrats tout their “middle-out” economic policies against the GOP’s “trickle-down” ones. Republicans claim to be fighting to save small businesses and middle-class homeowners from the rapacious demands of government. Very little attention is being given to the poorest among us.
Perhaps that’s because poverty scars this rich nation. A recent report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reveals that among thirty-five developed nations, the United States ranks thirty-fourth, with only Romania having a higher child poverty rate. We are also next to last in what UNICEF calls the “child poverty gap,” the gap between the poverty line and the median income of all families below it.
Childhood poverty translates into poor health, poor education and poor prospects. It’s no accident that the top country in international education rankings—Finland—also has the lowest levels of childhood poverty. So you’d think Washington would be focused on reducing childhood poverty, mass unemployment, family distress. Instead, Washington has decided to administer a little “tough love.” Congress cut food stamps by 7 percent in November, and in January 1.3 million jobless Americans will lose their unemployment benefits.
In his recent apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis wrote starkly about the moral challenge of poverty: “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘Thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
Although the pope was standing firmly in the long tradition of the church’s concern for the poor, American conservatives responded with hysteria. Rush Limbaugh accused him of peddling “pure Marxism.” Louis Woodhill in Forbes scorned him for “Papal Bull” that seemed “copied and pasted out of The Nation or Mother Jones.” (We take that as a compliment.)
In his recent speech on inequality, President Obama made the case for government action, insisting “we are a better country than this.” But his agenda is far less impressive than his rhetoric: it includes lower corporate tax rates, more trade accords, “streamlined” regulations and a “responsible budget” (meaning continued austerity). Obama did repeat his call for universal preschool and raising the minimum wage, but neither has been able to receive a vote in the Republican-led House.
As it happens, government programs to lift the poor work. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty brought poverty rates down dramatically, but then was lost to the war in Vietnam. Today, the United States does a much better job lifting poor children out of poverty than it did before Johnson pushed through Medicare and Medicaid, child nutrition, subsidized school lunches and more. But we do far less than other developed countries.
Two fundamental issues should be at the center of debate in 2014. The first, raised by Pope Francis and President Obama, is: What must be done to make the economy work for working people? The second was posed by the president: Are we a better country than this? Do we want to be? We know what works, and we can afford it. But are we prepared to do what needs to be done?