Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida recently urged the nation to reject “big government” as an answer to poverty. Yet, on the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, it’s worth noting that actions by local, state and federal governments have been at least moderately successful in alleviating the condition.
When structural changes in the economy have eroded the purchasing power of millions, the federal government must continue to provide not only a safety net, but also education and training to lift people out of financial despair. More than 46 million Americans live below the poverty line — officially set at $11,500 a year for one person or $23,500 for a family of four.
Despite billions of dollars spent to help the poor since 1970, poverty rates — now at roughly 16 percent of the population — have remained stubbornly stable and even have risen in recent years. Large cities such as Los Angeles, Detroit, Miami and Philadelphia report rates of more than 20 percent — often double their states’ numbers. At the same time, poverty is rising in the suburbs and is even creating hard times for many rural families.
To be sure, some government anti-poverty programs have been wasteful and ineffective, serving mainly the middle-class employees who run them. Yet intelligent, accountable government action can work. Direct aid programs such as Head Start and food stamps helped cut poverty rates nearly in half in the 1960s, from 22 percent of Americans to 12 percent, while vastly improving the health of poor children.
At the same time, the federal government should increase its efforts on other fronts, such as raising the minimum wage, which continually trails inflation, and expanding the earned income tax credit so that the working poor can keep more of their money.
Government alone can’t end hunger, need and joblessness, but the War on Poverty showed that certain actions can alleviate those maladies. Half a century after first committing itself to the task, the nation must find new ways to reduce poverty in America, wherever it exists.