In the whole of American history, there have been only four serious attempts made on the federal level to establish and strengthen the social safety net.
In the United States today, one in every six Americans live in poverty. One in seven is unsure where their next meal will come from and 1.6 million kids were forced to live in emergency shelters.
In his first State of the Union address 50 years ago, Lyndon B. Johnson called on Congress to declare war against this plight.
“Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined; as the session which enacted the most far-reaching tax cut of our time; as the session which declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States; as the session which finally recognized the health needs of all our older citizens; as the session which reformed our tangled transportation and transit policies; as the session which achieved the most effective, efficient foreign aid program ever; and as the session which helped to build more homes, more schools, more libraries, and more hospitals than any single session of Congress in the history of our Republic,” Johnson said.
At the time that Johnson gave this speech, the national poverty level was at 19 percent. Despite Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” the nation has never had a federal relief program that assisted non-elderly, non-disabled poor people. Prior to Johnson’s “call to war,” assistance for the needy was relegated to the states — which had a very non-universal approach toward administering aid — and to private organizations.
Johnson’s “War on Poverty” led to the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act, the first legislative representation of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms of 1941, or guarantees Roosevelt argued that people “everywhere in the world” should be able to enjoy — the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want and the freedom from fear.
In his 1941 State of the Union address, Roosevelt argued that the benefits of democracy include economic opportunity, employment, social security and the promise of “adequate health care.”
Earlier this month, Republican Rep. Paul Ryan told NBC Nightly News’ Brian Williams that the “War on Poverty” has failed, decrying that “trillions of dollars” have been spent on federal social spending while 46.5 million Americans remain under the poverty line.
“We can do better than this,” he said, calling on a return to community-based relief. “Too many people don’t know what the American idea is anymore.”
In order to properly interpret Ryan’s assertion, one must actually look at what it means to be impoverished in America and what has been the national response.
A history of social spending
Johnson’s “Great Society” — as the net effect of his sponsored legislation became known as — led to
the Social Security Act of 1965, which created Medicare and Medicaid
the Food Stamp Act of 1964, which created the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, the School Lunch Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for women, infants, and children
the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which created the Community Action Program, Job Corps, Volunteers in Service to America, the collegiate Work Study program, Adult Basic Education and the Economic Opportunity Council
the Higher Education Act of 1965, which increased the amount of federal money given to American colleges and created the Pell Grant, the Federal Direct Student Loan Program, and the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant Program
the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which has last been re-authorized as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
The net sum of the effects of Johnson’s legislation is undeniable: prior to the onset of the Great Recession, the national poverty rate was 13.2 percent — more than eight points lower than the rate in 1959, the first year the national poverty rate was measured, and more than five points lower than when Johnson declared war. In an ironic twist, it was this very success that led to the defeat of the “War on Poverty,” as critics could point to the dropping poverty level and declare there was no problem at all.
In the whole of American history, there have been only four serious attempts made on the federal level to establish and strengthen the social safety net. Under Theodore Roosevelt, the “Square Deal” — a set of health and public welfare reforms that included the establishment of the eight-hour workday for irrigation workers; the establishment of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the Meat Inspection Act of 1906, the Federal Employers Liability Act of 1908 and the Federal Employee’s Compensation Act of 1908; and reformed military pensions — was pressed into law.
These legislations, however, were seen as “business corrections;” care for the poor and indigent were delegated to county-run poorhouses or poor farms, to privately-held foundations and trusts, personal and family efforts, workers’ disability compensation and state-run programs in the wealthier states.
Franklin Pierce’s veto of the Bill for the Benefit of the Indigent Insane of 1854 — which would have permitted land grants to the states for the establishment of asylums for the indigent insane, as well as for the blind, deaf and dumb — created a precedent of federal non-intervention in social reform that was not overturned until Franklin D. Roosevelt 70 years later.
It was desperation, more than anything else, that forced Roosevelt’s hand, in reality. The Great Depression created a situation that overwhelmed state and private capability to address. With astronomical levels of poverty and hunger facing the nation, the federal government first attempted to offer first loans and then grants to the states to shore up their social programs. The federal government also initiated a large number of public works program toward getting Americans working again. The Roosevelt administration authored and pushed through the Social Security Act of 1935 — which ensured the welfare of the elderly and the disabled — only after it grew convinced that the states will be incapable of acting on their own.
After Johnson, the next president to address increasing social spending was Bill Clinton. Early into his presidency, then first lady Hillary Clinton proposed a single-payer healthcare system, which was universally and vehemently panned by Republicans. The suggestion was never seriously considered by the Congress. However, Bill Clinton is known as the president that signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, which forced a work requirement for the receipt of federal relief funds. As Clinton claimed after signing the bill into law, it fulfilled his campaign promise to “end welfare as we have come to know it.”
The last significant social spending reform, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 — also known as the Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare” — and the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010, sought to address concerns that have been plaguing the health care and education industries — namely, price-gouging for critical services and loans and a denial of equivalent service to all borrowers/customers. The laws ended the practice of private banks servicing federal insured loans, stopped insurers from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions or for demographic reasons, required the establishment of an affordable, publicly-available health care insurance option and established loan forgiveness after 20 years of timely payments.
However, Johnson’s reforms were the largest and had the greatest impact. While social programming is responsible for 35 percent of the national gross domestic product, with 21 percent being pure public expenditures, per a 2009 Congressional Budget Office report, the expenditure of these monies keep more than 60 million Americans out of destitution.
According to the report, the bottom quintile of American household by income have a total average household income of $7,500, less than half of the federal poverty line. The average federal transfer to these families — including the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid, SNAP, Social Security and Supplemental Security Income — is $22,900, with Social Security and Medicare being overwhelmingly responsible for the increase.
In reality, almost all Americans — regardless of age, ethnicity, race or wealth — use a social program. It just happens to be that most do not realize that they are doing so.
According to Suzanne Mettler’s “Reconstructing the Submerged State: The Challenges of Social Policy Reform in the Obama Era,” only 35 percent of all respondents knew that 529 or Coverdell saving plans are state-based educational prepayment programs authorized under section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code. Only 40 percent realized that their home mortgage interest deduction was backed under a special program under the auspice of the Internal Revenue Service. Only 40.4 percent knew that the Hope and Lifetime Learning Tax Credits were Clinton-era social programs.
What made Johnson different from any other president is that Johnson had first-hand experience with poverty. Johnson’s father was an once-successful businessman and politician who fell from grace. Impoverished by the rapid turn of fate, Johnson knew the humiliation and insecurity of hunger and poverty. Johnson hated poverty, and this single-mindedness created one of the most aggressive and frantic drives to undo what he saw as a denial of hope.
“Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope — some because of their poverty, and some because of theft color, and all too many because of both,” Johnson continued in his State of the Union address. “Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.”
Challenging social reform
In Ryan’s and in the responses to social spending from the Republicans, there is an apathy that is bred from an ignorance of the issues at hand. There has been a perception among the white middle class that social spending benefits minorities at the cost of increased taxes. Without seeing exactly how this benefited them, many in the white middle and upper classes lost sympathy for the effort, particularly, after the various economic declines. Eventually, it became fashionable to criticize social spending.
If Ryan’s assertion was taken to be true and the “War on Poverty” failed, it failed because of politicians like Ryan, who have been willing to sacrifice social spending for vote-friendly allocations, such as military increases. However, one must accept that without what have been done with the “War on Poverty,” the national poverty rate would be in excess of 30 percent.
But this does not mean that social spending has been successful. The hard realization is that current social spending addresses short-term needs without effectively answering the long-term problem. For example, while it is important to feed the hungry now, without addressing why they cannot feed themselves, the nation will be forced to continue to feed these individuals indefinitely. Along with addressing short-term needs, there must be long-term investments in infrastructure reform, education, community development, skills training and social development.
An example of this is the current shortage of living-wage jobs for the minimally- or under-skilled. Per the University of California Davis Center for Poverty Research, the current poverty rate for full-time employees is 2.9 percent. However, for the unemployed, it is 33.1 percent. Arguably, the single-most important thing the government can do to reduce the poverty level is to encourage growth in higher-wage jobs for the nation’s lower-skilled employee segment or promote affordable job training in low-income neighborhoods.
With America ranking 64th in the world for income inequality and with the income of most Americans shrinking with inflation, the need for relevant solutions has never been greater. While creating a bridge to cross the attainment gap is a good thing, closing the gap permanently would be better.