Waging the War on Poverty

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NEXT STEPS: President Barack Obama speaks on Jan. 9 at the White House about his plan to create jobs, increase economic security, expand educational opportunities, increase access to quality, affordable housing and improve public safety. -PHOTO: AP/Carolyn Kaster

“We shall not rest until that war is won,” Lyndon Johnson said 50 years ago, declaring “an unconditional war on poverty.” But from time to time, administration to administration, there has been rest and there has been retreat in the fight.

And always there has been a feud between the major parties on how best to wage the war.

The anti-poverty programs created during Johnson’s administration include Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, a permanent food stamp program and core education programs.

In a speech at the Social Mobility Summit hosted by the Brookings Institution, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, recognized the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, calling poverty “the worst strain of widespread disease: economic insecurity.” He blasted “haphazard” federal assistance programs that he said quarantine the poor.

Ryan advocated simplifying government assistance programs and turning to the states. “Whatever form this assistance takes, we have to encourage work,” he said. “And we need to change the way we think about work. It is not a penalty. It’s the shortest, surest route back into society. ”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore of Milwaukee, who grew up poor in the 1960s, also observed the 50th anniversary. Without mentioning names, she said, “many of my colleagues in Congress endeavor to chip away at safety-net funding, eroding budgets little by little, until we are left with programs that are less effective at eradicating need — and then the critics somehow find the nerve to pass judgment on the value of the programs.”

In his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress, expect to hear President Barack Obama reference the War on Poverty as he sets out an agenda for reducing income inequality and poverty and rescuing the American middle class.

Earlier this month, his administration released a progress report assessing five decades federal action. The report showed progress — poverty has dropped from nearly 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012 — and that government programs played a significant role in the decline.

Still, data from the Pew Research Center shows the rate of childhood poverty has gone up. Another recent study shows about a third of women, despite making up half of the workforce and being two-thirds of the primary or co-breadwinners in their families, are living on the brink of poverty. And Americans are experiencing the highest rate of long-term unemployment since the aftermath of the Great Depression.

“With 15 percent of people, and 16 million children, still in poverty today, poverty is a persistent problem in our country,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison. “Whether it is extending unemployment benefits or ensuring 47 million Americans can have their basic food needs met by SNAP, this Congress has consistently failed to provide the poorest Americans with any stability or support.”

Pocan said the anniversary offers an opportunity for assessment and action: “It is time for Congress to restore unemployment insurance to 1.3 million Americans and provide our workers with a livable wage by raising the minimum wage.”

The president’s agenda includes a push to increase the minimum wage. Bills in the Senate and House would raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $10.10 over a couple of years, but because of congressional gridlock, activists want Obama to raise the minimum wage with an executive order.

The president’s agenda also includes an extension of unemployment benefits, which Democratic U.S. Rep. Ron Kind of La Crosse recently described as a lifeline.

“Thousands of job-seeking Wisconsinites are struggling to make ends meet. The longer Congress waits, the longer that families and local businesses will suffer,” said Kind, who has been working with out-of-work residents such as Candice Hemmerling of Three Lakes.

Hemmerling worked for years in higher education, and then lost her job about six months ago. “I have depleted my retirement savings to keep my son in college,” she said. “Since he’s been away, I have not had the courage to tell him I’m out of work.”

She began collecting unemployment on June 1 and lost her benefits at the start of 2014. 

“I have no more,” Hemmerling said. “I was struggling with the small amount of unemployment I received for each week but I made it. Each day I scour the Internet for jobs. I look at state jobs, jobs in higher education, and any job board I can find. So far no full-time positions have come through. Now I have exhausted my retirement, my savings and my unemployment has ended.”

Hemmerling, in her 50s, said she’s worked her adult life bettering other’s lives.

“Now,” she said, “ I’ve run out of options.”