What the World Needs Now Are Unifiers Not Dividers

By Brian Sahd

I think we can all agree that on one level the War on Poverty has been lost, no need to sugar coat this assessment.  According to official government data, today, in 2014, 15% to 16% of the American population lives in poverty – that is the same percentage as when the War on Poverty was declared in the 1960’s.

What is even more telling — according to a Heritage Foundation study, we (Americans) spent close to $21 Trillion in 2011 dollars over the past 50 years on War on Poverty related programs (Food Stamps – SNAP, Aide to Families with Dependent Children, Medicaid, Head Start and so on). And still poverty rates persist, unchanged. But this is not the ‘failure’ that matters (I realize that $21 Trillion is a lot of money and is not to be taken lightly).

As Robert Rector stated recently, current poverty has little resemblance to poverty when LBJ sign his famous legislation into law. Rector refers to various government sources, including census data and surveys by federal agencies, to suggest that the “typical American living below the poverty level in 2013 lives in a house or apartment that is in good repair, equipped with air conditioning and cable TV”.  Rector goes on to state that those living below the poverty line live in homes “larger than the home of the average nonpoor French, German or English [person]… has a car, multiple color TVs and a DVD player. More than half the poor have computers and a third have wide, flat-screen TVs. The overwhelming majority of poor Americans are not undernourished and did not suffer from hunger for even one day of the previous year [2012]”.

Clearly, the War on Poverty’s $21 Trillion has had an impact.  So why is there a general agreement that the signature piece of legislation that came out of the 1960’s was a complete failure?  Harry DeRienzo argues that there are two reasons the War on Poverty is considered a failure. The first is that the efforts and programs created to address poverty were designed with the assumption that the economy was accessible and, when combined with the War on Poverty programs would give the poor the access they were denied.   As LBJ put it when he sign the War on Poverty into law half a century ago the aim was: “to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities”.  For DeRienzo, however, an accessible economy was a false assumption and  in the end  undermined the source of prosperity, that is, access to living wage jobs, resources for self-employment, and technology by the average citizen.

DeRienzo may or may not be correct in his belief that the economic system is rigged so as not to provide the opportunity needed to provide a fair chance to develop an individual’s own capacities.  But I am not ready to throw in the towel on our global economic system just yet. There is plenty to celebrate about our present economic system. Of course, there is always room for improvement.  Leaving aside this theoretical part of the discussion, DeRienzo also suggests that it is the absence of a unified society that doomed the War on Poverty.  I would agree.  And so does Paul Ryan.  In his Road Map for the Future, Ryan argues that Americans have lost a unifying national character, one that emphasizes self reliance, hard work and personal responsibility – characteristics that have unified Americans for most of our 237 or so year history.  Americans, argues Ryan were known and admired everywhere for their hopeful determination to assume responsibility for their own lives; rely on their own work and initiative; and improve their opportunities for their children to prosper in the future.

But what about the pervasive notion, espoused by the ‘progressive’ left, that poverty persists because the poor have not been given the opportunity to “develop their own capacities” and are kept in poverty by the evil 1% (or 5%) of those in the highest income bracket.  It is easy to become captivated by this rhetoric, when we have a president who seems intent on creating class divisions instead of unifying the country (I seem to remember Obama campaigning on a promise to change the partisan tone of Washington).

Certainly, there is plenty of blame to go around for this hyper-partisan environment that seems to feed the class warfare screed.  We have a senate majority leader bent on shutting down the Senate (and hence Congress) in order to keep a democratic majority and to do the gate keeping for the president; while in the House we have ideologues bent on scoring political points from their base rather than governing.  But this is for another essay.

In a 2011 report “The Mismeasure of Inequality” published in Policy Review and sited in a recent Wall Street Journal article, authors Lee Ohanian and Kip Hagopian found that income inequality has not been rising as some have insisted, but in fact it is declining.  Over the past two decades income inequality declined by 1.8%, once all public assistance is factored in. (That $21 Trillion at work).  Granted, not a huge decrease, but a decrease nonetheless.

People are hurting – there is little doubt, but to turn this into class warfare and blame the wealthy  for the 16% poverty rate is being misleading at best, disingenuous at worst.

In an earlier essay on this blog I argued that as individuals we have become more self-absorbed and the intensity of our sense of entitlement is even more disturbing.  Americans —  at all levels on the economic scale —  feel that they deserve a better job, a higher salary, more government subsidy simply because they exist, not because they have earned it.  As Ryan states Americans have been lured into viewing government as the main source of support.  Now, is this the fault of the War on Poverty? Is it the byproduct of the intractability coming out of the Senate and the House? Or is it because of the recent sledge hammer rhetoric coming out of the White House that the rich are getting richer on the backs of the increasing poor? Take your pick.

As Americans we need to reject the destructive and divisive rhetoric coming from our elected officials and politicians. We need to return to a true societal expression – one that draws on America’s most treasured and resourceful asset: its people.  We need to return to the unifying American and human characteristic of personal responsibility, self sufficiency, hard work and a belief in commonality.  Instead of creating class, racial, gender, sexual orientation wars, which today’s politicians are pursuing in a shameless fashion, America needs to reconnect with its underlying and deep belief in individual freedom – the opportunity to pursue our own happiness.  But besides this firm belief in individual rights, we as Americans cannot forget what our Founding Fathers also believed —  in the greater good – the public good — a good that, when necessary, will and should take precedence over individual self interests.

If we continue to elect individuals to public office that preach division and mistrust of fellow Americans and celebrate the us vs. them rhetoric we will continue to be a divided country with no hope of creating sustainable public policy. But if we as individuals, that compose the collective, are strong enough to elect unifiers to public office then we can recreate a “decent society in which people were and would remain unified in purpose while possessing a shared sense of destiny”.


Tags: No tags

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *