This year marks the 50th anniversary of the "discovery" of poverty in "affluent" 1960s America by democratic socialist Michael Harrington in his classic work The Other America. That book is credited with drawing the attention of the Kennedy administration to the problem of poverty and helped launch LBJ's "war on poverty" in 1964.
Contrary to the right-wing attacks on the war on poverty, the poverty rate in the U.S. dropped from 17 percent in 1965 to 11 percent in 1978. The war on poverty created Medicare and doubled Social Security payments, indexing them to inflation, which led to a dramatic drop in the poverty rates among the elderly, from 30 percent to less than 10 percent.
Since 1978, however, things have gotten worse, not better. The poverty rate increased throughout the 1980s, reaching 15 percent, falling briefly back to 11 percent in 2000, rising again to 15 percent. So while the initial anti-poverty programs of the Johnson administration had some success, ultimately the war on poverty failed to erase the scourge of poverty in America.
First, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out, the Johnson administration waged the wrong war — in Vietnam. Ever since, the U.S. government, both Democratic and Republican administrations, has been more committed to funding the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about than to addressing poverty and its many underlying causes and consequences.
Policymakers did latch onto one concept from Harrington's book: the culture of poverty. Harrington painted a bleak picture of the lifestyle and living conditions of the poor, but while he saw the culture of poverty as the consequence of deprivation and a lack of resources, American elites saw something else: a culture that creates and reproduces poverty. The problem, they determined, was not a lack of good jobs, money, or resources or the growing inequality in U.S. society. It was a lack of "good values."
Thus, since the 1980s, the U.S. government has been engaged in a war on the culture of poverty, not a war on poverty and its real causes.
Today, nearly 16 percent of the U.S. population (49 million people) are poor, according to the official government definition of poverty ($22,811 annual income for a family of four; $18,000 for a mother and two children). Nearly half of those official poor have incomes less than 50 percent of the official poverty level.
If we define poverty as half of the median household income ($25,000), more than 19 percent of Americans are poor (it's less than 10 percent for most western European countries). In the U.S., 22 percent of children live in poverty (compared to less than 5 percent in western Europe), and one in four African Americans and Hispanics are poor. According to the Brookings Institute, one-third of Americans live in or near poverty.
We were led to believe that with the economic growth of the 1980s and 1990s a rising tide would lift all boats. It did not. While productivity increased dramatically over the past 30 years, wages have not. For most U.S. workers, wages have been flat or have declined over this time. So where did all the rewards of that productivity go? For the last 25 to 30 years, more than 90 percent of total growth in income in the U.S. went to the top 10 percent of Americans (mostly the top 1 percent), leaving the other 10 percent of income growth to be shared by the bottom 90 percent. The wealthiest 400 people in the U.S. have more net worth than the bottom 50 percent of the country's population.
U.S. policymakers should be looking at the growing concentration of wealth, income, and power, which has crippled the U.S. economy and produced policies that benefited the top 1 percent over the bottom 99 percent.
Instead, we have more calls to cut top tax rates further, from 70 percent before Reagan down to 25 percent or less! Instead of more investments in successful social programs like Medicare and Social Security, we are being told that the bottom 90 percent must sacrifice their "entitlements" to fund more tax cuts and reduce the national debt.
The "invisible poor" of The Other America are now very visible — they are working-class families losing their jobs and their homes. They lack money, not values. We lost the war on the culture of poverty. It's now time to focus on the root causes of poverty. The working class, including the working poor, has been losing the class war, and it is time to fight back.
Jim Maynard is an activist in the Memphis chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.