War on Poverty, or War on the Poor?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013 at 7:13 PM by

Next year is the 50th anniversary of the “war on poverty,” and we can expect a lot of debate and posturing then about that ambitious undertaking.  Expect some legislators to use the opportunity to urge that policymakers renew their commitment to fight poverty and reinvigorate some of the elements of that agenda, while others will take that opportunity to declare the war on poverty a failure and a mistake.

Rep. Paul Ryan is preparing to play a role in next year’s debate by offering his own views about a very different type of war on poverty, which may also be a war on the current spectrum of anti-poverty programs.  An article in the Washington Post this morning reports on his endeavor: 

Paul Ryan is ready to move beyond last year’s failed presidential campaign and the budget committee chairmanship that has defined him to embark on an ambitious new project: Steering Republicans away from the angry, nativist inclinations of the tea party movement and toward the more inclusive vision of his mentor, the late Jack Kemp.

“Since February, Ryan (R-Wis.) has been quietly visiting inner-city neighborhoods with another old Kemp ally, Bob Woodson, the 76-year-old civil rights activist and anti-poverty crusader, to talk to ex-convicts and recovering addicts about the means of their salvation.”

The article goes on to note that Ryan’s approach looks very different than Kemp’s:  

“Ryan’s new emphasis on social ills doesn’t imply that he’s willing to compromise with Democrats on spending more government money. His idea of a war on poverty so far relies heavily on promoting volunteerism and encouraging work through existing federal programs, including the tax code. That’s a skewed version of Kempism, which recognizes that ‘millions of Americans look to government as a lifeline,’ said Bruce Bartlett, a historian who worked for Kemp and has become an acerbic critic of the modern GOP.” 

As a bookend to the Washington Post article, I’d suggest reading Jared Bernstein’s critical response today in his On the Economy blog, where he assesses the Ryan approach to fighting poverty.  

There will be a lot of pontificating next year about combatting poverty, and much of it will amount to little more than rhetoric that pushes liberal or conservative buttons.  I can’t promise that I’m completely above that, but I hope that those of us who are outside partisan politics can push lawmakers to shed more light than heat on the debate. 

If liberals and conservatives can agree that fighting poverty continues to be an important battle to engage in, perhaps we can agree to use an evidence-based approach to develop a non-partisan agenda for combatting poverty and improving the economy.  If we can find effective ways to enable the economy and the public sector to lift more Americans out of poverty, I think the economic recovery will be far healthier for all Americans than if we give up the fight and allow poverty and inequality to continue to open a wider chasm between the rich and the poor.  

Jon Peacock

Categories: Blog, ECONOMIC SECURITY, economy, income inequality, poverty | Comments Off on War on Poverty, or War on the Poor?

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