Fifty years after President Lyndon Johnson declared his intent “not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it,” key congressional Republicans and prospective Republican presidential candidates are hammering away at some of his Great Society programs. They label them well-meaning failures that have done more to strain the federal budget than to slow the cycle of poverty.
House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is expected to continue the theme Wednesday when his committee convenes for an update on Johnson’s goal, a follow-up on a scathing report on Washington’s anti-poverty efforts that Ryan unveiled last month.
“For too long, we have measured compassion by how much we spend instead of how many people we get out of poverty,” Ryan said in a statement last month. “We need to take a hard look at what the federal government is doing and ask, ‘Is this working?’”
Democrats, meanwhile, are looking to increase the nation’s minimum wage as a key strategy for reducing poverty and helping to narrow the income gap between America’s rich and poor. As Ryan’s committee meets Wednesday, the Senate is expected to take a key test on a measure to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour.
“This raise only gets people out of poverty. That’s all it does,” Senate Majority Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said last month.
Driving all this debate is some very crucial political calculus. Voters can expect to hear more of how each party would address income inequality as this year’s congressional elections and the 2016 presidential contest approach, political analysts and poverty experts say.
But for all the talk, people shouldn’t expect political action soon, they warn. Democrats are well aware that their efforts to raise the minimum wage will go nowhere in a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
The House, meanwhile, passed a Ryan-written budget that includes cuts and big changes in entitlement programs such as Medicare, knowing that it’s dead on arrival in the Democratic-held Senate.
“I think all this stuff is a prelude to 2016,” said Eugene Steuerle, a former top Treasury Department official who’s an expert on taxes and Social Security at the Urban Institute, a Washington research center. “I think right now you have a stalemate between the parties, with the Democrats trying to complete the (President Franklin D.) Roosevelt agenda with universal health care — trying to protect the Affordable Care Act. Republicans are trying to protect gains of the past in trying to keep tax rates moderate.”
Johnson announced the war on poverty in his 1964 State of the Union speech. It became defined by a series of programs designed to help the poor, among them food stamps, Medicare and housing assistance.
Like Ryan, critics of the program think that much of the money spent over the last half century has been wasted. A recent study by several Columbia University economists argues otherwise, citing a revised method by the U.S. Census Bureau that was used to calculate the impact of federal poverty programs.
“Our estimates … show that historical trends in poverty have been more favorable — and that government programs have played a larger role — than [earlier] estimates suggest,” the report said. “Government programs today are cutting poverty nearly in half … while in 1967 they only cut poverty by about 1 percentage point.”
The national poverty rate stood at 15 percent in 2012, according to a the Census Bureau report last September, with 46.5 million people earning at or below the federal poverty line of $11,170 for an individual and $23,050 for a family of four.
The figures represented the second consecutive year that the number of people below the poverty line and the poverty rate showed no significant change. However, the rate was 12.5 percent in 2007, the year the economy began its descent.
Though they aren’t the issues topping most voters’ lists of concerns, both parties see potential benefits at the polls in raising the issues of poverty and income inequality.
“It’s a get-out-the-vote issue” for the Democratic base, said Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
Republicans apparently think so too. In addition to Ryan, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas — all potential GOP presidential contenders — have spoken at length about poverty or recently toured poverty-stricken areas to tout their approach to the problem.