Suddenly, Republicans want to talk about poverty.
Rep. Paul Ryan, known to most Americans only as Mitt Romney’s 2012 running mate, and the guy who’d like to convert Medicare into a voucher program (and who was famously rebuked by Catholic nuns for the severity of the cuts he wanted to wring from federal anti-poverty programs), suddenly can’t talk enough about poverty.
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida reportedly plans to give a major speech on the subject, and he’s sure to include many warm allusions to the American Dream and Horatio Alger and his immigrant parents, while declaring that in his words, the “big government war on poverty” has failed.
Now, it is true that 50 years after President Lyndon Johnson launched the “war on poverty” in his 1964 State of the Union address, there still are poor people. And the poverty rate has dropped from around 19 percent back then, to around 15 percent today. Not a dramatic dive.
But by every measure, poverty in America is both less rampant, and less cruel, than it was in Johnson’s day, when parts of Appalachia looked like the Third World. That’s not to mention the era today’s Ayn Randian GOP views as ideal: pre-New Deal America, before Aid to Families with Dependent Children and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (otherwise known as food stamps); before Medicaid, and Medicare; and before Social Security, which by itself is keeping 22 million Americans from falling below the poverty line, according to Census figures; mostly seniors, but also more than 1 million kids.
SNAP, which Republicans would like to see slashed by $39 billion, has by itself kept about 4.7 million people out of poverty, half of them children, since 2011, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Incidentally, the program acts as a de facto subsidy to businesses (80 percent of the meager benefit is spent within the first two weeks of the month) and to minimum-wage employers like McDonald’s and Walmart, whose workers disproportionately rely on the supplemental assistance in order to afford to buy food.
Indeed, in the decade immediately following Johnson’s declaration, when the bulk of the federal programs that so offend conservatives were passed, the percentage of American families with children living in poverty dropped from just over 20 percent in 1959, to an historic low of 10.8 percent in 1969, according to the Census bureau.
Poverty crept up in the inflationary years that followed, but it really shot up during the 1980s, going from 15.9 percent in 1981, when the United States was in the midst of a recession, to 17.9 percent at the end of 1983, following the draconian Reagan budget cuts that slashed social programs (and cut taxes for the rich). The percentage of American families in poverty fell again during the booming 1990s, hitting 12.7 percent by the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency. But multiple hits to the economy, from the Sept. 11 terror attacks in 2001 to the Great Recession that occurred on George W. Bush’s watch, drove poverty rates up again. Not surprisingly, given the slow recovery, they’ve remained high.
This while the deficit has been steadily falling; Republicans have successfully blocked new stimulus spending and slashed funding for everything from food stamps to Meals on Wheels. And still, Republicans want more cuts to anti-poverty programs. No extension of unemployment insurance for 14 million Americans. No expansion of Medicaid in the states they control. And no increase in the minimum wage (in fact, one popular conservative anti-poverty idea is a lower minimum wage.)
Rubio, Ryan, Sen. Rand Paul and others act as if we have been pursuing progressives’ preferred prescriptions to fight poverty over the past 50 years. In fact, during the Reagan years, under George W. Bush and after the 2009 stimulus, which itself was composed of one-third tax cuts, we have been pursuing conservatives’ preferred economic strategy, especially since the tea party took over the House of Representatives in 2010-11. We have been cutting spending, imposing austerity and forcing out-of-work and out-of-luck Americans to go it alone, to turn to food pantries or to throw themselves on the mercy of private charities, just as conservatives desire.
We’ve also been cutting taxes for all but the super-rich. The stock market is soaring. CEOs and 1-percenters have been making out like robber barons.
Republican governors are choking off the last vestiges of union representation. And Republicans at the state and federal level have rejected public investments in the kind of jobs the unemployed desperately want: rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, expanding high-speed rail or creating the high technology we now pretty much only buy from Japan.
We’ve been doing precisely what conservatives want done.
And shock of all shocks, poverty is winning.