50 Years Later, How The Politics Of Poverty Evolved

Jan 9, 2014
Originally published on January 10, 2014 10:21 am
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This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

This week, and in the coming year, we're marking the anniversary of a famous declaration. It's been 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson called for an unconditional war on poverty in his first State of the Union Address after the assassination of President Kennedy.

Johnson described Americans living in, quote, "the outskirts of hope." A half-century later, there are new and even tougher economic problems that another Democratic president hopes to confront.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: To understand the context for the war on poverty - that's an umbrella term for all the social safety net programs LBJ signed into law - it's worth listening to the president who came before him.


LIASSON: Sheldon Danziger, a historian of the war on poverty, says John F. Kennedy's vision of a rising tide was a reality back then.

SHELDON DANZIGER: Johnson and his advisors knew that economic growth had been working in the quarter century after World War II. It really was true then that a rising tide lifted all boats. And yet Johnson, in his speech, says a growing economy is not enough. He sets out this very broad vision. We must do more. We're a rich country. We can afford to do it. It's the right thing to do and it will pay off in the long run.

LIASSON: Republicans and Democrats differ about the effects of the war on poverty. But David Wessel of the Brooking Institution says there's no doubt the programs made a lot of people much less poor.

DAVID WESSEL: What it means to be really, really poor in America was much worse in 1960 - infant mortality rates and the number of kids who get measles, and stuff like that. We have made progress against poverty in the United States over the last 50-odd years, and that's somehow getting a little bit lost in the debate, because we still, of course, have so much of it, and that's disturbing.

LIASSON: And it's not just poverty we still have too much of. Middle class incomes have been stagnant for 40 years. Now, more and more people worry not so much about the poor, but about falling into poverty themselves.

President Obama has declared rising income inequality the defining challenge of our times. In a recent speech, he promised to address the decline of upward mobility that is jeopardizing people's faith in the basic bargain of the American dream.


LIASSON: But Mr. Obama's challenge is much harder than Johnson's. Poverty today may be less severe. Few places in America still lack indoor plumbing, for instance. But, says former Obama White House economist Jared Bernstein, President Johnson enjoyed a lot of advantages.

JARED BERNSTEIN: Back in Johnson's era, a certain amount of GDP growth was almost guaranteed to lift a bunch of people out of poverty, because the benefits of growth were more broadly shared. Today, when we get GDP growth, it does an end-run around middle and lower-income people, going straight to the top. And so it doesn't have the poverty reduction effects, because of all this inequality that it had 50 years ago.

LIASSON: In other words, the rising tide really worked to raise more boats in those days. And, Bernstein adds, Johnson also had something Obama doesn't: big Democratic majorities in Congress.

BERNSTEIN: Johnson had a larger pie and a more cooperative group in terms of cutting the slices. Obama has a smaller economic pie and a group that doesn't want to let him cut the slices at all the way he sees fit.

LIASSON: Some Democrats believe a new populist moment has arrived that will help them push proposals to address income inequality and declining mobility. President Obama will unveil some of them in his State of the Union address later this month. As a short-term solution, he wants to raise the minimum wage. Over the long term, he wants investments in infrastructure, research and early childhood education. But, says David Wessel, those proposals will all have a very hard time in Congress.

WESSEL: Among economists, there's a general, almost religious belief that early childhood education is an important recipe for growth and widely shared prosperity. But the president, of course, proposed, in the State of the Union address last year, universal pre-K. He was going to pay with it for a tobacco tax. And last I checked, it died about 15 minutes after he delivered the speech.

LIASSON: An economy growing too slowly, too few ladders of opportunity: There's a consensus that those are big problems, but not much agreement on what a new war on declining mobility might look like. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.