Dan Simpson: We can and must defeat poverty

America's glory days are still ahead if we work to revive the American Dream

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The new war on poverty proclaimed by politicians of both major parties, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the old war on poverty, is in some ways encouraging. In other ways, given the nature and interests of some of its self-appointed adherents, it raises interesting questions.

Many members of Congress, more than half of whom are millionaires and hundreds of whom are seeking re-election this year, are proclaiming their dedication to eradicating poverty and thereby resemble grinning wolves poised at the chickenhouse door to proclaim support for fowl rights.

In fact, there is a very serious problem here, at the heart of American society, that remains virtually unaddressed in spite of the pious words pronounced on the subject by everyone from President Barack Obama to some of the cruder spokespersons of America’s political and media class.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 declared his war on poverty, the poor were estimated to represent about 19 percent of the American population. Now, 50 years and Head Start and Medicare and Medicaid later, they are adjudged to be 15 percent of the population and to number at least 46 million. More than 20 percent of the 46 million are children.

The untenable-anyway argument that America’s poor are poor because they don’t want to work, preferring to live on unemployment benefits and food stamps, leaves out the children. Can anyone with a heart and in his right mind argue that more than 9 million of America’s children “deserve” to go to bed or school hungry, or be homeless with no fit place to do their homework?

The implications for economic mobility in America — and the former American dream of starting out poor and through hard work climbing up into the middle or even upper classes — are devastating. What are the children of America’s poor supposed to aspire to? And, if they don’t have the drive that comes from those aspirations, what is supposed to power the American economic system, JPMorgan Chase bonuses and dividends?

When LBJ talked about poverty in 1964, it was the urban poor in public housing, or the Appalachian poor, sitting barefoot on the porches in the coalfields of Kentucky or West Virginia, or the rural black poor in the shotgun houses along country roads in the South. Some of them are still with us, but added to them now are the poor in the suburbs, white and black, trying to hold onto the houses they were hoodwinked into buying, trying to make ends meet on $19,000 a year, single mothers with two children living with Mom, who happens to be working two jobs herself to try to hold onto the house.

In the meantime, the country’s growing wealth continues to gravitate upwards into the hands of the 1-percent rich. The “middle class,” a term that now includes what used to be called “the working class” or “the lower class,” terms which no one wants to use anymore out of political correctness, has received no meaningful wage or income increases for decades. In the meantime, the rich compete with each other by, for example, having multiple residences, while at the same time fighting fang and coil to see that none of their taxes — federal, state, local or school — are increased one nickel.

I see it as a sort of extreme form of “beggar thy neighbor,” a belief that even if one renders the poor hopeless, with no means of bettering themselves — through education, for example, as it used to be — America nonetheless will prosper. And that the poor will just put up with it. No guillotines. No sticking their oppressors in barrels and setting fire to them. No breaking into their gated communities and burning their houses. Instead, count on the masses to be fully distracted by sports, industries also run by the rich, and to eat themselves into inert obesity, unable or indisposed to revolt against the geniuses who run the place.

Now, this picture, which I believe to be accurate, is no argument for hopelessness with regard to America’s future. I see it instead, particularly in this election year, as a bell in the night to call Americans to meet the new ferocious challenges of poverty.

Foreign affairs buff that I am, I also, of course, can’t miss the fact that the Chinese are moving up on us. I love the Satchel Paige line, "Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you." Last week China passed the United States as the world’s largest trader.

What is to stop us from dealing with poverty, inequality and diminishing economic mobility? The French now tax companies at an effective rate of 75 percent on the part of salaries exceeding $1.36 million, including sports stars and coaches. Do that, then put the money into education.

The first step is to demand of every single candidate for public office, at the local, state and federal levels, what exactly he or she is going to do, if elected, about poverty, economic inequality and lack of mobility. And I don’t mean in 2016 — I already am tired of speculation about the presidential race that year and find enraging the implication that nothing can get done until that election has taken place.

I actually think America’s glory days still lie ahead, and that a clear popular decision that we are going to deal with these problems and make America once again the shining beacon on the hill, where hope of a better life is still a realizable objective, is in order, starting this year. Come on, let’s go. This is ridiculous.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com,412-263-1976).

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