Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Turning the War on Poverty into a War on the Poor

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, writing in the Chicago Tribune, has declared the War on Poverty a failure and is demanding that a new course be set. The approach that he takes to the problem runs parallel to that of much of his party, as the 2016 budget passed by the Republican Congress illustrates.

Bush writes:

"Trouble is, from the War on Poverty to the persistence of liberal big city mayors, the same government programs have been in place for over a half-century — and they have failed. We have spent trillions of dollars in the War on Poverty, and poverty not only persists, it is as intractable as ever. This represents a broken promise. And it feeds the anger of Baltimore."

The premise of that argument is profoundly silly, and an apt comparison will help explain why: We could just as easily point out that since the end of the Cold War, we have spent some $12 trillion on national defense. Yet despite all that money and all the debt we've incurred in spending it, our enemies not only persist, like poverty they are intractable as ever.

Does that mean those defense programs have failed, that we have lost the War on War? By Bush's logic, apparently so.

Poverty, like national security, is not a problem that can be "solved." It is an ongoing obligation of a country that likes to think of itself as the most prosperous on the planet, and the growing divide between rich and poor makes it more pressing, not less. Furthermore, the "War on Poverty" is not a failure when tens of millions of Americans have a decent place to live when they would otherwise not have one, when they have food on the table when they would otherwise have gone hungry, when they have heat in the winter when they would otherwise have suffered in the cold.

We certainly should not replace the War on Poverty with a War on the Poor, which is essentially what Bush and others seem to advocate.

Because at one level, poverty is an inescapable function of simple math. At any given moment, the American economy produces X number of decent, good-paying jobs with benefits such as health care. The number of Americans wanting and needing those jobs is X plus Y. The premise of conservative theory on the question seems to be that by cutting government benefits for those in the Y group, we will either improve their moral character or heighten their economic desperation, and either way, that will make more good jobs appear.

It will not. There is no conceivable mechanism by which increased economic desperation among the poor produces an increase in the number of available decent-paying jobs, and it is political alchemy to suggest otherwise.

In the comments above, Bush also makes reference to the "persistence of big-city liberal mayors" as part of the problem. That too is a strange comment to make. As a rule, big cities are run by Democrats. That includes troubled cities such as Baltimore, Newark and Detroit. It also includes extremely prosperous cities such as New York and Boston as well as major cities that are the heart and soul of red-state economies:

The mayor of Dallas is a Democrat. The mayor of Phoenix is a Democrat. The mayor of Houston is a Democrat. The mayor of Salt Lake City is a Democrat. The mayor of Charlotte is a Democrat. The mayor of Tampa is a Democrat. And on and on and on. And in every one of those places the jobless rate is well below the national average and per capita income well above the national average.

Conversely, much of rural America is in terrible economic and social straits, and those rural counties and communities tend to be run by Republicans. Can the problems of rural America -- the high unemployment, the meth crisis, the lack of opportunity, the population loss -- thus be blamed on failed Republican leadership? Or are they more accurately and fairly described as the consequence of profound historic and economic trends that no local government is capable of resolving?

Yeah. Well the same is true of some of our troubled cities. The gutting of American industry through globalization and technology has stripped former industrial giants of the blue-collar jobs that once sustained them and has left their workforces stranded, with little hope. And in many cases, those trapped in poverty in places such as Baltimore are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who fled the rural South in the Great Migration, and who thus never got a real footing in the modern world before it collapsed around them.

In times of rapid change, those with the least education and fewest financial resources are always the most vulnerable and least adaptable. It's not a matter of character, it's a matter of fact. To cite just one illustration, some 25 percent of American homes today have no Internet access. Among black households, it's 34 percent; among households with incomes of $25,000 or less, it's 51 percent.

If you're a child raised in such a home, what are your chances of competing in a 21st century economy? Oh, a few will get out. If you're extraordinarily lucky, gifted and hardworking, you have a chance to overcome those obstacles, although the odds are still long even if you have all three.  For many, day-to-day survival is as high as they dare to aim.

Here's something else Bush said in his op-ed:

"If our government leaders want to attack poverty, they should first acknowledge that an effective anti-poverty program is a strong family, led by two parents. The evidence on this is incontrovertible. And conservatives should not be afraid to say that as the family breaks down, so does opportunity. Our goal should be to build up families."

That is absolutely true, but in an important sense it is also absolutely irrelevant. Because once we've all acknowledged the importance of a two-parent household -- and it is very important -- what changes? What policy decisions flow from that acknowledgement? The answer is generally none -- it certainly is in Bush's explanation. The observation serves no apparent function except to establish the moral superiority of those who make it.

Two other points:

1.) Over the last generation, the decline of the two-parent family has slowed considerably. In 1997, according to census data, 68.4 percent of American children lived in two-parent households; in 2014, 64 percent did so. Other indicators, such as the divorce rate and the rate of teen birth, have actually reversed themselves and improved significantly. So it's not as bad as some would have you believe.

2.) The social, cultural, economic and even technological drivers behind the overall decline of marriage are deep and complex (and none of them has anything to do with gay marriage). The notion that such a broad-based historical trend -- appearing in every Western industrialized nation -- is being driven to any large degree by government policies, or can be reversed by different government policies, vastly overestimates government's power. The fact that such beliefs about the power of government are held most strongly by anti-government conservatives is more than a little ironic.

And that's really the key. What we're dealing with are extremely complex social, economic and cultural phenomena. Government did not create them; government probably cannot reverse them. Government can only respond to them, mitigate them, soften them. It is a reactive force, a compensating force. If you're expecting it to be a transformative force, it will fail in that goal every time.

And if government does not respond, soften, mitigate and compensate, if instead the decision is to let the American people feel the full brunt of changes of truly historic magnitude, well, then things will certainly get interesting.


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.