The Common Good

Want to Win the War on Poverty? For the Sake of the Most Vulnerable, Let's Work Together

The only way to win the “war on poverty” is for liberals and conservatives to make peace — for the sake of the poor. That would be the best way to mark the 50th anniversary of the war on poverty, declared by President Lyndon Johnson in his January 1964 State of the Union address. Making peace means replacing ideologies with solutions that actually solve the problems of poverty. With both Republicans and Democrats speaking out on poverty this week, and the recession slowly receding this should be an opportunity to find the focus, commitment, and strategies that could effectively reduce and ultimately eliminate the shameful facts of poverty in the world’s richest nation.

Created by Brandon Hook/Sojourners. Photos: Nolte Lourens/Shutterstock and bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock

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For any proposal, the basic question must be whether it helps more people and families rise out of poverty and realize their dreams. This means setting aside political self-interest and thinking beyond our too often inflexible ideologies.

It’s certainly impossible to celebrate a victory over poverty in America with our poverty rate still at 15 percent — 4 percent lower than it was five decades ago — with 46 million Americans still poor in America. The poverty rate fell by 11 percent in the first 10 years after Johnson’s declaration with several new federal programs put into effect, but success dropped off as attention drifted and federal spending shifted to the Vietnam War. Programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, have helped to significantly decrease the poverty rate among the elderly to 9 percent, from 28 percent in 1964. But large numbers of children remain impoverished — one out of every five kids are poor in America. For black or Hispanic children, that number is one out of three. 

On this 50th anniversary of a historic commitment, it’s time for both political parties to be more self-critical and more open to new possibilities, instead of just blaming the other side — or vilifying poor people themselves. The focus must be on the root causes of poverty in America, not just the symptoms. And, perhaps most importantly, we must transform the fight to overcome poverty into a fundamental moral cause, and even a religious imperative for people of faith, from just a political battle.

Poverty is systemic and government must have a role in reducing it. This is not an ideological assertion but a basic truth given the size of the problem and the complexity of modern society. The Census Bureau reports that government safety net programs cut the poverty rate last year by nearly half. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, kept 4 million people out of poverty, and most of that support went to families with children and a wage-earner with a job that didn’t pay enough to fully feed their families. Without a safety net, the poverty rate would have been 29 percent in 2012, according to an analysis of the Census report by USA Today. Government benefits protected 41 million people, including 9 million children, from poverty.

Conservatives need to stop saying that government programs don’t reduce poverty, because the facts demonstrate that is just not true. Referring to safety nets as “hammocks” simply betrays a lack of knowledge of, or relationship with, people who are struggling and need help. Government is not always the enemy, but often a valuable partner.

Yet, liberals cannot imply that government alone is enough, or that the safety net is capable of completely lifting people out of poverty. After all, the whole idea of the safety net is that it catches you after a fall. There are vital programs that protect people from poverty during hard times and keep many people from falling into further impoverishment, but they do not eliminate the root causes. The problems of family breakdown in our society need to be taken seriously and the cultural pathologies poverty creates require a response. Both social and personal responsibility are needed to end poverty. Economic opportunity must be actually available to everyone, especially lower-income people and families. This is a basic premise and goal that should be the starting point of the conversation between liberals and conservatives.

For that to happen, three crucial components must be lifted up — commitments that will cut across political lines and challenge the ideologies of all sides.

First, work needs to work in overcoming poverty and that means it should pay enough for people to support themselves and their families. If you work hard — and often 40 hours a week or more — you should not have to live in poverty in America. Many working families remain poor because they don't have jobs that pay them enough to succeed. We need good jobs that pay a living wage and can support strong families.

The war on poverty might not have failed, but our economy has. Over the last several decades investors have done well, but wage earners have not. Salaries have stagnated, even while American workers’ productivity has increased. A fairer balance between the wealth at the top of companies, the middle, and the bottom is a moral challenge that must be answered. Living well requires jobs that pay living wages. America's creed as the land of opportunity must not disappear because of a lack of social mobility. Work should lead to success and contain the opportunity to end poverty.

Second, education is the best pathway out of poverty. Learning, acquiring skills, and developing good habits and disciplines provides the foundation for finding the opportunities necessary for a good life. Success in school clearly leads to success in life, while failures in school lead to lives of one failure after another. Let’s be honest: America wouldn’t accept the utterly inadequate schools most low-income children endure if they were in our suburban cities instead of urban neighborhoods. Teaching crucial skills and work ethics to the young is essential. What we call schools in many of our poorest neighborhoods are more like prisons, because they essentially imprison the next generations in poverty.

Radically reforming our educational systems must be a bi-partisan commitment. Teachers, the leadership of school principals, and the resources of the community are key. The people who are with our children for the longest time every day can help change their lives — or not. When schools don’t do their jobs, students can't escape the prison of poverty. Education should be affordable, accessible, and effective — all the way from pre-school to college.

Third, family is the everyday environment that forms the values, life choices, and commitments that teach us how to live. Helping to create and support strong and stable families is foundational to overcoming poverty. All the data — from both liberal and conservative think tanks — shows that. The experiences of those of us who have lived and worked in poor neighborhoods teach that too. Good parenting from both mothers and fathers can do more than anything else to shape and guide the lives of children, while fractured and dislocated family environments lead to all kinds of failures and destruction.

Marriage can be an anti-poverty measure and poverty is much more prevalent in single parent households than those with two parents. But we must address the causes of why we are losing marriage and family, especially in our poorest communities — which are both systematic and cultural. We need to name and challenge racial discrimination and mass incarceration in our criminal justice system, lack of good jobs, and the destructive cultural values of excessive materialism, attractive violence, and recreational sexuality. 

Both liberals and conservatives could and should support all three crucial ingredients to overcoming poverty with opportunity: work, education, and family. Let’s redeem this historic moment of declaring war on poverty by finally doing what it will take to win it — together.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His latest book, On God's Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good, is now available. Watch the Story of the Common Good HERE . Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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