Posted on December 19, 2013 · Posted in Frank Friday, P-cubed News, Roosevelt House Faculty Forum

Almost 50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson announced the War on Poverty in his State of the Union address to Congress on January 8, 1964. In response to a poverty rate of around 19%, President Johnson’s historic speech led to a series of targeted and intentional measures, including the Economic Opportunity Act (1964), the Food Stamp Act (1964), the Title 1 provision in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), and the Social Security Amendments (1965), which resulted in Medicare and Medicaid.

These and many more pieces of legislation — collectively known as the Great Society — were passed using the national government to engineer social, political and economic change in the country. The Great Society was the last major push by any president to address issues of racial discrimination, poverty and economic disadvantage at such a national level.

As 2013 comes to a close, the United States is a society of deep economic and racial inequalities. The current poverty rate in the United States is 15%, yet Congress continues to cut funding to social safety net programs. The food stamps program, a critical safety net envisioned by President Johnson, has been the most recent casualty of partisan politics in Washington. In 2011, food stamps kept 4.7 million Americans — including 2.1 million children — out of poverty, but Congress recently passed $5 billion in cuts in food stamps benefits affecting 48 million Americans, in addition to a proposal for an additional $40 billion reduction over the next 10 years.  Congress also recently voted to curtail unemployment insurance affecting 1.3 million unemployed workers, which will impact around 5 million people over the course of next year. Factor in the steady loss of livable wage jobs and ever-sharpening wage polarization and the problem of inequality only worsens. These steep cuts could make poverty numbers look considerably worse within a few years.

While President Johnson’s ambitious and interventionist Great Society agenda aimed to improve the quality of life of all citizens, regardless of their background, his belief in an activist-government set the stage for many of today’s bitter policy divisions, including questions of rights, entitlement, equity, distribution and citizenship. Despite contemporary critics of President Johnson’s policies, research shows that Great Society safety net programs have been key to decreasing poverty rates over the last five decades. Studies here and here continue to demonstrate the beneficial impacts of government programs like food stamps, unemployment insurance, and earned-income credit, among others. Without these programs, poverty rates may have risen to a staggering 31% last year.

Despite the evidence of the economic and social success of these programs, policymakers continue to make severe budget cuts. Earlier this week, the Federal Reserve announced a gradual phasing out of its monetary stimulus plan, even as the Labor Department reported a stubborn 7.3% unemployment rate. Federal deficits and social spending cuts are the main discussion points out of Washington these days, but nowhere in the picture are public policy solutions to address these grim facts: almost one in four American children live in poverty and 32% of children in this country have parents who lack secure employment.

Is it time for another set of progressive policies to profoundly shift the current socioeconomic dynamic in the United States? At a minimum, the country’s struggle with poverty and lack of opportunities for so many calls for a vision for change not unlike President Johnson’s Great Society series of initiatives to build a more equal society.

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Best wishes, and happy holidays,