Monday, January 16, 2012

The War on Poverty, Revisted

The physical memory of MLK, Jr. as a physical person is being lost with every passing year. He has already passed into legendary status and soon will only be remembered for his legacy. King might first be viewed for his Civil Rights work, but he placed an equal share of time in seeking solutions to bring an end to poverty. Nowadays, we seem to be focused on more manageable endeavors. Should the situation of income disparity be raised, we would rather address a few pressing matters than fix the whole. Depending on one's ideological perspective, prior attempts to narrow the gap between rich and poor were frustratingly ineffective.

In a 1964 address, wherein he accepted the Nobel Prize for Peace, Martin Luther King, Jr. set forth the particulars of the situation. The societal shortcomings of which he spoke still exist today.
The well-off and the secure have too often become indifferent and oblivious to the poverty and deprivation in their midst. The poor in our countries have been shut out of our minds, and driven from the mainstream of our societies, because we have allowed them to become invisible. Just as nonviolence exposed the ugliness of racial injustice, so must the infection and sickness of poverty be exposed and healed - not only its symptoms but its basic causes. This, too, will be a fierce struggle, but we must not be afraid to pursue the remedy no matter how formidable the task.
Around the time of this speech, President Lyndon Johnson instituted a variety of reforms he titled the Great Society. Some of them, like Medicaid and Medicare, persist to the current day. Conservative distaste of these social programs still runs high, which has informed the views of several Republican candidates now running for President. With time and a decrease in financial resources, they have grown more unpopular among some. These dissenters are obsessed with the idea of a zero-sum game. To them, different socio-economic and racial/ethnic groups are pitted against each other in a longstanding battle royal. In their mind, whatever anyone else gains must necessarily come at their own financial loss.

Opposition to Great Society reforms existed even then, but it was choked out by substantial Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate. These majorities prevented the legislation from being effectively killed by its opposition in committee and not being brought to the floor. This slate of progressive programs were notably not brought up as a campaign issue. A more progressive (and also more affluent) country was willing to devote the time and money needed to close the income gap. These acts, a substantial increase of government spending and government intervention, were perceived by many Americans as basic Civil Rights issues.

The poverty initiative remains heavily controversial to this day. Conservatives often see it as an unqualified failure, a policy of wishful thinking and squandered resources. They believe this segment of the Great Society established an underclass and a black welfare state. Liberals argue that the programs made a substantial impact, decreasing the number of people in poverty by nearly half. But in the end, these initiatives in major government intervention truly died when the last of the Post-War economic boom faded.
Many observers point out that the War on Poverty's attention to Black America created the grounds for the backlash that began in the 1970s. The perception by the white middle class that it was footing the bill for ever-increasing services to the poor led to diminished support for welfare state programs, especially those that targeted specific groups and neighborhoods. Many whites viewed Great Society programs as supporting the economic and social needs of low-income urban minorities; they lost sympathy, especially as the economy declined during the 1970s.
The economic boom times that made this country a Superpower have continued to pass into history. The fade has been gradual, but undeniable. If we were unable or unwilling to get rid of poverty when we had tremendous economic surpluses at our disposal, now it is even less likely. But the problem remains, one that creates a plethora of other issues. Now, we’d rather manage only one at a time, ignoring the overlap. Until we devise a new strategy, a new coordinated effort that is as broad as the problem itself, any War on Poverty is bound to be an occupation.

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