On January 8, 1964, U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, also known as LBJ, famously declared a War on Poverty. Fifty years later, those curious about how the war came out should consult Sasha Abramsky, an authority on the subject.
His recent book The American Way of Poverty has been hailed as the second coming of The Other America, the 1962 book by the late socialist Michael Harrington. That one influenced Lyndon Johnson to launch the war on poverty in the first place.
British-born Abramsky is a senior fellow at the Demos think tank and writes for the Nation. His book chronicles cases of the long-term poor, accompanied by Dorothea Langestyle photos.
These victims, still suffering in poverty, would seem to confirm that LBJs War on Poverty was indeed a lost cause. The author concedes that the war failed, but he offers an explanation: The war succeeded in bringing poverty to center stage but technocrats took control, and they set about reducing a massive moral conundrumpoverty amidst plentyinto a set of scientific and statistical data. Once that occurred, the energy was sucked out of the process.
That, according to Abramsky, is why LBJs War on Poverty failed. It was not because the War had any strategic defects or caused much collateral damage. The author never questions that the federal government was fully up to the task. But it does come through that the problem of poverty remains.
Not since the Great Depression have so many people been beaten down by vast, destructive forces, writes Abramsky. To fix it will require a more militant approach, nothing less than a War on Poverty Mark II. The author says this one can succeed despite a determined enemy.
That enemy is the anti-tax, anti-government movement that has managed to convince people that taxes are a mugging rather than an investment. So no surprise that the strategic weapon of the War on Poverty Mark II is higher taxes.
A flat tax may sound superficially fair, but in reality tax systems work best when they are steeply progressive. The author wants targeted, sensible, fair tax increases: raising the capital gains tax, increasing the income tax on the wealthiest Americans, eliminating the upper limit for Social Security contributions, reintroducing an oil windfall profit tax, creating a viable financial transactions tax and imposing estate taxes on large inheritances.
In other words, We un-starve the beast that Grover Norquists acolytes have spent three decades gratuitously depriving of nutrients. And it wont do merely to protect existing programs. Welfare systems work best when they expand automatically during economic downturns.
What about those technocrats who fifty years ago scuttled LBJs War on Poverty? Not to worry because we have the knowledge and the technological wherewithal to create flexible, fast-responding, non-punitive, counter-cyclical welfare programs. These would presumably work as models of efficiency, and the steeply progressive tax would pay for it all.
Abramsky does concede that some people are poor because they have made bad choices. But if they fail to get back on their feet, its only because of budget cuts in government drug rehab programs, welfare or food stamps.
The authors target is President Obama, who understands the impact of poverty on peoples lives better than almost any other of his predecessors. But Obamas inner circle, many of whom were avowed moderates who had cut their teeth during the Clinton years, prevented him from protecting the long-term poor from budget cuts.
So the author wants Barack Obama to get militant and launch a new War on Poverty. Judging by his recent rhetoric, the president seems eager to comply. So the nation should get ready for more government, bigger bureaucracy, more punitive taxes, and something else.
As Albert Einstein put it, doing the same thing over again and expecting different results is insanity. The new war on poverty will fail, just like the one LBJ launched fifty years ago.