Continuing with my desire for an increased awareness around issues of poverty and class — which automatically addresses issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, and the many other intersections of identities — I thought it might be helpful to do some reflection since President Johnson initiated his War on Poverty 50 years ago.
As we reflect on issues of poverty and class (and all of the implications therein), it might be helpful to keep in mind that today over half of the members of the United States Congress are millionaires. Yes, leading the pack is our Republican Darrell (I Hate the Poor) Issa, with a net worth of approximately $464 million dollars. Of course, Republican Obstructionist Mitch McConnell also made the list of millionaires. When those crafting policy are so far removed from the practical concerns of everyday people, it’s no wonder that they make so little effort to improve the lives of those people.
For years, polls have shown that the top priority for Americans is job creation. Congress has done virtually nothing. Instead, congressional Republicans have wasted money fighting the Affordable Care Act, a law that ensures that the poorest still have access to necessary health services. Trying to score Tea Points, they shut down the government, again disproportionately harming the poorest, both government employees and service users.
In a nation where the highest court has decided that corporations are people, it comes as no surprise that those conglomerate entities wield their power to collect more wealth. The result is an increasingly skewed distribution not just of wealth but of security. People who are scrambling for a basic living have precious little time to fight for their rights. That makes the recent fast food and Wal-Mart strikes even more impressive.
War on Poverty? It seems like poverty is winning, abetted by the authorities who should be bearing arms against it. How sad this makes me for the late President Johnson, who tried so hard to address issues of poverty by creating social programs that would help lift people out of poverty without judgement and shame.
Here we are now 50 years post Johnson’s initiatives according to the Pew Research Center:
Today, most poor Americans are in their prime working years: In 2012, 57% of poor Americans were ages 18 to 64, versus 41.7% in 1959.
Far fewer elderly are poor: In 1966, 28.5% of Americans ages 65 and over were poor; by 2012 just 9.1% were. There were 1.2 million fewer elderly poor in 2012 than in 1966, despite the doubling of the total elderly population.
But childhood poverty persists: Poverty among children younger than 18 began dropping even before the War on Poverty. From 27.3% in 1959, childhood poverty fell to 23% in 1964 and to 14% by 1969. Since then, however, the childhood poverty rate has risen, fallen and, since the 2007-08 financial crisis, risen again.
Poverty is more evenly distributed, though still heaviest in the South: In 1969, 45.9% of poor Americans lived in the South, a region that accounted for 31% of the U.S. population at the time. At 17.9%, the South’s poverty rate was far above other regions. In 2012, the South was home to 37.3% of all Americans and 41.1% of the nation’s poor people; though the South’s poverty rate, 16.5%, was the highest among the four Census-designated regions, it was only 3.2 percentage points above the lowest (the Midwest).
Sadly, today we see our own version of the Hunger Games being played out. The people with the most power have the most money and continue to strip benefits from those that need it the most. Perhaps obliviousness is their greatest privilege.