I Want a New War

Here’s a repost of an important piece from the misty past of Everblog.  Still unfortunately relevant.

Let’s talk about poverty.  I know, it’s hard.  Unpleasant, even.  Maybe that’s why our political leadership hasn’t talked about it for decades.

In fairness to President Obama and his recent predecessors, none of us want to talk about poverty.  Somehow we’ve managed to disappear the lower economic class from popular culture.  On the screen, poor people still manage to look pretty healthy, have awesome apartments, wear swank clothes and hang out with all the coolest people.

If you didn’t know better, you could convince yourself the only poor people in America are the guys you occasionally glimpse panhandling downtown.  And if those guys weren’t so damn lazy we wouldn’t even have to deal with them, right?

It hasn’t always been this way.  John Steinbeck wrote his way to a Nobel Prize talking to America about what it’s like to be poor.  Henry Fonda was nominated for an Academy Award for living in Tom Joad’s skin.

Those “wars” our leaders like to declare against inanimate objects like drugs and terror?  Those started with the successful war Lyndon Johnson declared on poverty in 1964.  You know what he did?  He went before Congress, in his first State of the Union address and said,

“This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort. It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”

Know what happened a few months later?  He won an election in a landslide.  Under his leadership (that’s kind of a key word, “leadership”) the American people started providing and enjoying the benefits of Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, head start, public television, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Just to name a few.

And it worked.  We were winning the War on Poverty.

This Washington Post piece makes the clear case that those strategies – or something mighty coincidental – made life (a lot) better for people like Tom Joad and his descendents.  Before his speech that night, one in five Americans – 20% – lived below the poverty level.  Ten years later the percentage of Americans living in poverty had dropped to 11%.

Then something happened.  I wish I could tell you what it was.  Sometime in the 1970’s our national interest in doing something to fix domestic poverty drifted away.

Maybe as we started feeling the pinch of the energy crisis and other economic troubles we started to re-think how much we could actually accomplish.  And then in 1980 we elected a guy who told us how important it was, to borrow a phrase, to “grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.” A few years later, in 1987, Michael Douglas wasn’t just nominated for a Best Actor Award like Henry Fonda, he won the damn thing for being Gordon Gecko.

We haven’t looked back since.  Sure, we get token words from a president every now and then but nothing like what LBJ had to say.

We don’t like to think about the sick, strange fact that one child out of every five – right here in the richest nation in human history – lives below the poverty line.  Nearly three million of those children live in households that would exist on less than two dollars a day if the government did not provide some minimal benefits for them.  Just FYI, that number is twice what it was in the mid 1990’s.

According to the Census Bureau, in 2012 more than 16% of America lived in poverty.

We on the Left talk quite a lot about civil rights.  Who has them, who doesn’t, who’s violating them, what to do about it.

I submit that if you don’t know where you’re going to lay your head tonight, marriage equality doesn’t matter much to you.

If you don’t know how you will feed your children tomorrow, online privacy isn’t a priority for you.

If you can’t afford bus fare to get to the interview, the bigotry of the potential employer is irrelevant as far as you are concerned.

Watch this space.  I’m determined to use it to change how you think about what it means to be poor.  What it looks like in 2013.  Where you’ll find it.  What we can do, now, about it.

In addition to writing here at Everblog, Harvey Ward writes about his efforts to live healthier and better at SkippingDessert.Com.  You can also find him on Twitter @hlward.

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7 thoughts on “I Want a New War

  1. Pingback: How to Tell if You Live in Poverty. « merlinspielen

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