Paul Ryan’s “War on Poverty”

by Stephen Seufert, The Seufert Papers, August 3, 2013

“I believe that, as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil.” Robert F. Kennedy

Congressman Paul Ryan has been focusing on poverty since before the 2012 election. Ryan recently said “We’ve got the 50th anniversary of the war on poverty coming up next year. We don’t have much to show for it.” Not much to show for it, huh? Medicare, probably the most enduring legacy of the Great Society, has lifted millions of seniors from poverty. In 1967, the poverty rate among those 65 or older was 30 percent; in 2011 that number was 8.7 percent. The Head Start program has given millions of children the chance to escape poverty through early investments in education. These are just a couple of the many accomplishments of the Great Society’s war on poverty. Furthermore, it’s unfair and misleading to call the war on poverty a loss because many of the programs have been either altered or completely abolished. For example, the Personal Responsibility and Work Act of 1996 gutted many of the key components of the war on poverty. So when Congressman Ryan says we have little to show for it’s because key provisions of the Great Society have gradually been dismantled over the last few decades.

Ryan further claims that the war on poverty cost $15 trillion. Truth be told, any government program or agency that tallies up the cost of its spending over the past 50 to 60 years will rack up a hefty bill. In fact, total government spending over the last 50 years is about $103 trillion according to the Washington Post. The various agencies and programs associated with the war on poverty accounts for 12% of that total.

In 1969, 2.7 million Americans were on food stamps. That number, as Congressman Ryan points out, is over 47 million today. Keep in mind the food stamp program in 1969 was still in its infancy and many states had not fully implemented the Food Stamp Act. In 1967, Senator Robert Kennedy of New York went on a fact finding mission to the Mississippi delta. What Kennedy found were children near starvation. Kennedy’s trip to the poorest parts of the country drove him to expand the war on poverty; particularly when it came to food stamps. However, food stamps simply addressed the needs of the hungry; it didn’t solve the problem of poverty itself. Kennedy recognized this by pushing for jobs instead of the dole.

There needs to be a national solution to poverty coupled with local community engagement. Now more than ever the technology exists to coordinate a nationwide war on poverty. The kind of war on poverty that lifts millions out of hunger, ensures a warm bed for those that are without shelter, and puts the unemployed back to work while at the same time providing for the general welfare of the nation.

Charity, whether it be private or public, isn’t the answer to poverty in America. The only way to move the country forward is by making those on welfare self-sufficient. Living off the dole deprives citizens the self-respect and dignity that only a job can provide. Investments in human capital mean long term investments in local communities. Somewhere along the way the United States forgot that simple truth. Maybe it was when the American worker was devalued and wages fell behind the cost of living. Or maybe in the never ending quest for the almighty dollar, people stopped seeing their neighbors as neighbors but rather competition. Whatever the reason for our decline, it’s important to remember that shared, lasting prosperity occurs when the nation is united in common cause. There is important work to be done across the nation when it comes to infrastructure, energy, and housing. What’s missing isn’t the funding, material or manpower; but rather vision and leadership.

Paul Ryan has offered no new solutions to fighting poverty. Yet at the very least Ryan recognizes there’s a growing poverty crisis; a crisis which is draining the nation’s resources and making it less economically competitive. I welcome a discussion on how to fight poverty as long as any reform serves the general welfare of the nation.