We shouldn’t fight poverty like it’s 1964

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 State of the Union address, he declared, “This administration today here and now declares unconditional war on poverty in America. … Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty but to cure it — and above all, to prevent it.”

In 1964, the poverty rate in America hovered around 19 percent. Since the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act in 1964, over $22 trillion has been spent on the 200 or so federal and state programs included in U.S. welfare plans. Today, 50 years and trillions of dollars later, the poverty rate has dropped by only 4 percent, a small change that many cite as evidence as to why we must re-evaluate the welfare state.

In his September 2014 piece on the War on Poverty in the Daily Republic, Joel Mathis argues for the continuation and expansion of America’s welfare efforts. Mathis claims that the small decrease in the poverty rate is not an accurate measure of the effectiveness of government assistance programs because society in 1964 cannot be compared to society in 2014. A stagnant middle class and a lethargic American dream, Mathis posits, are two factors that did not exist in 1964 that are contributing to the high poverty rate today.

Mathis goes on to say, “Are anti-poverty programs perfect? No human endeavor is. But they’re clearly better than a non-existent alternative.” I disagree with his sentiment here, which is similar to that of many liberals today. We cannot continue blindly supporting programs that are massively inefficient. Between federal and state spending on welfare programs, not even including Social Security or Medicare, we spend $17,000 per impoverished person annually. With this huge expense, the system should have more to show.

It is not true that any system is better than no system when the ramifications of having such a flawed system involve perpetuating poverty and further intensifying polarization and tensions surrounding the welfare state.

In a 2013 piece in Forbes, Peter Ferrara argues against the expansion of the welfare state. Like Mathis, he looks to other factors — such as the number of single head of households — to explain the failures of the system: “The poverty rate for female-headed households with children is 44.5 [percent], compared to 7.8 [percent], for married couples with children.”

Ferrara, unlike Mathis, correctly points to this societal change as a reason why the welfare system needs to be reformed. When Johnson declared war on poverty in 1964, he did not know that in 2014, 35 percent of children would be living with only one parent and one source of income. We need to deal with poverty in a way that will be effective for Americans in 2014.

The solution isn’t a bigger and stronger welfare system. The solution is an improved welfare state. One example of a new approach that could affect work and poverty is paid family leave.

In his piece Ferrara adds, “Indeed, full time work year round at the current minimum wage, plus the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, would be enough to lift every American family out of poverty. Yet, the typical poor family with children today is supported by only about 800 hours of work during a year, or 16 hours per week.”

I agree with Ferrara and other conservatives who cite this statistic, to some extent. Workers receiving support from the government should be working more than 16 hours per week. However, with this argument, Ferrara and other conservatives overlook a crucial issue.

Minimum wage jobs often have much less flexibility than a salaried job with benefits. Because of this, minimum wage workers and those living in poverty often need to take part-time work because it gives them the flexibility they need to take care of their children or other family members who have no other form of care. A 2012 poll from the National Partnership for Women & Families found that “73 percent of Republicans, 87 percent of independents and 96 percent of Democrats said congressional and presidential attention to family friendly policies is important.” This is an issue that the majority of Americans, regardless of party affiliation, support.

Implementing a form of paid family leave will allow workers, especially those on or around the poverty line, to work more hours and better support themselves. Raising taxes on all citizens and pouring more money in to the welfare system does not get at the root of the problem, nor does increasing the minimum wage, which has its own drawbacks.

For those worried about pushing the costs of a federal mandate for family leave onto businesses, perhaps federal funding for such leave could help solve the problem. Spending money is not a bad thing when it works to alleviate the cause of multiple symptoms of poverty. Allowing workers to work more hours thanks to this new flexibility means less money will have to be spent on other anti-poverty programs.

With the proper enactment and support, the passage of legislation supporting paid family leave will allow for everyone on both sides of the poverty line to do what they need to do to care for their family while still allowing them to work and support themselves.

Continuing to find other ways to reform and support the structure of our welfare system is necessary if we ever want to make headway in the war on poverty, and we should find ways to do this without alienating certain groups of people. After 50 years, it is time to reevaluate the welfare state and see how we can truly help those who need help today.

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