Fifty years ago, Lyndon Johnson used his first State of the Union address to declare a war on poverty. At that time, 19 percent of Americans lived below the poverty line. Thanks to the programs created during Johnson’s war — including Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps and Head Start, among others — poverty was cut by one quarter over three years.
Today, at 16 percent, the poverty rate is just three percentage points below 1964’s high-water mark; the United States now has 11 million more people living in poverty than it did 50 years ago.
Tuesday night, during his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama delivered what many might consider a system upgrade — version 2.0 of the war on poverty. This one is likely to be called the War on Income Inequality, in which Obama echoed many of the themes he explored in a speech last month at the Center for American Progress, when he talked about income inequality as the defining challenge of our time. This is a compelling theme, and one that most of us can probably relate to. For example, since 1979, our economy has doubled in size, but all the money is going to fewer and fewer people: Half of the income earned in this country is earned by the top 10 percent.
Workers are 90 percent more productive than in 1979, but we earn just less than 8 percent more. It’s harder to move up the ladder, since much of that ladder is sunk in the swamp of low-wage work. To sum up: The rich keep getting richer, and the rest of us are getting poorer.
This disparity is damaging not only to hardworking families, but to the founding spirit of our country, where we are all created equal, with a level playing field for opportunity.
We are encouraged that the public conversation about poverty has been elevated — even Republicans are talking about it — and even more encouraged at the volume of conversation about raising the minimum wage, and about extending unemployment benefits (which failed in the Senate just a few short weeks ago, before they went on break). Clearly even more is needed.
But if “income inequality” becomes the new version of the war on poverty, we fear that some things may get left behind, and that the full plight of the 47 million people living in poverty may get overlooked. For one thing, there’s a greater chance that the volatile political battles that now curdle any substantive discussion of problems will quickly turn the equality issue into claims that “Obama is a socialist.” For another, both inequality and poverty are hugely complex issues, and they are clearly interrelated. But the factors contributing to poverty can’t be reduced to income alone.
Lyndon Johnson understood this. His State of the Union address included these words:
“Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.”