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50 Years After LBJ’s “War on Poverty,” a Call for a New Fight Against 21st Century Inequality

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Fifty years ago this week, President Lyndon B. Johnson launched his “war on poverty,” which led to many of the federal and state initiatives low-income Americans rely on today — Medicaid, Medicare, subsidized housing, Head Start, legal services, nutrition assistance, raising the minimum wage, and later, food stamps and Pell grants. Five decades later, many say another war on poverty is needed. We are joined by Peter Edelman, author of “So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America.” A faculty director at the Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy at Georgetown University, Edelman was a top adviser to Senator Robert F. Kennedy and a member of President Bill Clinton’s administration until he resigned in protest after Clinton signed the 1996 welfare reform law that threw millions of people off the rolls.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to look at poverty in the United States. This week marks the 50th anniversary of when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “war on poverty.” His administration created many of the federal and state initiatives low-income Americans rely on today. They include Medicaid, Medicare, subsidized housing, Head Start, legal services, nutrition assistance, raising the minimum wage, and, later, food stamps and Pell grants. During his first State of the Union speech, that President Johnson called on Congress to support his war on poverty. This is him.

PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: I would like to caution you and remind you that to exercise these privileges takes much more than just legal right. It requires a trained mind and a healthy body. It requires a decent home and the chance to find a job and the opportunity to escape from the clutches of poverty. Of course people cannot contribute to the nation if they are never taught to read or write, if their bodies are stunted from hunger, if their sickness goes untended, if their life is spent in hopeless poverty just drawing the welfare check. So we want to open the gates to opportunity, but we’re also going to give all our people, black and white, the help that they need to walk through those gates.

The program I shall propose will emphasize this cooperative approach to help that one-fifth of all American families with incomes too small to even meet their basic needs. Our chief weapons and a more pinpointed attack will be better schools and better health and better homes and better training and better job opportunities, to help more Americans, especially young Americans, escape from squalor and misery and unemployment.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was President Lyndon B. Johnson speaking 50 years ago this week. Many are marking the anniversary by asking what the war on poverty has accomplished.

AMY GOODMAN: Today an increasing number of Americans say they experience direct economic hardship, according to a new study by the Center for American Progress. It found 61 percent of Americans say their family’s income falls below the cost of living. As many as a third of Americans reported serious problems falling behind in rent, mortgage or utilities payments, or being unable to buy enough food, afford necessary medical care, or keep up with minimum credit card payments.

For more, we’re joined by Peter Edelman, faculty director at the Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy at Georgetown University. He was top adviser to Senator Robert F. Kennedy and also a member of President Bill Clinton’s administration until he resigned in protest over the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. His latest book is So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America.

Peter Edelman, it’s great to have you back on Democracy Now! Let’s go back 50 years ago this week to the announcement of the war on poverty by President Johnson. Talk about just what that war on poverty was. In fact, it was specific.

PETER EDELMAN: It was very specific. And first, thank you for—I’m delighted to be with you this morning.

So, there were really two layers to what President Johnson did. One was the war on poverty. The other was the larger Great Society. And so, when we think about that period of time, we need to understand that the big things were Medicare and Medicaid and the historic civil rights laws and the first-ever federal aid to elementary and secondary education. The war on poverty was very specific. And it was good things. It was Head Start. It was legal services for low-income people, community health centers—all things that we still have, all things that have made a difference. But in and of themselves, that narrower group of things was not going to end poverty. It has made a contribution to help in a variety of ways, and it continues, but it was a narrower idea. We do need to understand that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Peter Edelman, what is it that made it possible for Johnson to cobble together such an enormous range of legislative acts to pursue this war on poverty?

PETER EDELMAN: It was in the context of the optimism and the positive feeling about America that we had after World War II and the tremendous economic boom that we’d had, although there had been a recession at the end of the Eisenhower period. So, we really were in an optimistic position where we thought we could do anything—you know, later on, go to the moon, all of that.

Secondly, and very important, the civil rights movement made a major difference in terms of exposing injustice, racial injustice, but it immediately became clearer, as we achieved legal equality, and as President Johnson said, that that didn’t mean that somebody would be able to afford to buy a meal at a lunch counter. And so, there was a kind of an upheaval of—from the bottom, through the civil rights movement, as well as Johnson himself, who gets—has to get—for all the things that we think negatively in terms of the war in Vietnam, Johnson is our great president after Abraham Lincoln on civil rights, and he really cared about poverty, from his own upbringing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, let’s go back—as you’re mentioning the impact of the civil rights movement on the war on poverty, let’s go back to one of President Johnson’s—the 1964 State of the Union address, where he declared that war. He drew upon his personal experiences as a teacher working among impoverished Mexican students in South Texas.


PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: You never forget what poverty and hatred can do, when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child. I never thought, then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country. But now I do have that chance. And I’ll let you in on a secret: I mean to use it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Peter Edelman, your response to a president making such a forceful statement about how he’s going to use his power to achieve the social aims of his administration?

PETER EDELMAN: To me, of course, it is something that we would like to hear from our leaders in that degree of deep feeling. It’s a very different time politically. It is also true that as of the election that gave us the 89th Congress beginning in 1965, we had enormous majorities of Democrats in the House and the Senate, and also a much more bipartisan approach to so many issues. The civil rights laws wouldn’t have been passed without Republican support. Food stamps, then, and really until very recently, was bipartisan in its support. Richard Nixon was the first president to send a message to Congress asking for a national food stamp program. Bob Dole defended the food stamp program in the early ’80s. George W. Bush, very recently, was a strong supporter of the food stamp program. So, we had a different politics than we do right at the moment, anyway.

President Obama has done a lot about poverty, and I think we should be very clear about that. The Medicaid expansion in the Affordable Care Act is of historic dimension. What was in the Affordable—in the Recovery Act was terrific for low-income people in our country. So, we have leadership. But Lyndon Johnson, those words do ring very strong for us.

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida outlined sweeping changes to the federal government’s anti-poverty programs.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO: Our current president and his liberal allies, what they propose to address is—their proposal is, let’s spend more on these failed programs, and let’s increase the minimum wage to $10.10. This—really? This is their solution to what the president has called the defining issue of our time? Raising the minimum wage may poll well, but having a job that pays $10 an hour is not the American dream. And our current government programs, at best, offer only a partial solution. They help people deal with poverty, but they do not help people emerge from poverty.

Therefore, what I am proposing today is the most fundamental change to how the federal government fights poverty and encourages upward mobility since President Johnson first conceived the war on poverty 50 years ago today. I am proposing that we turn over Washington’s anti-poverty programs and the trillions that are spent on them to the states. Our anti-poverty program should be replaced with a revenue-neutral flex fund. We would streamline most of our existing federal anti-poverty funding into a single agency. Then, each year, these flex funds would be transferred to the states so they can design and fund creative initiatives that address the factors behind inequality of opportunity. This worked in the 1990s with welfare reform.

AMY GOODMAN: Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida speaking yesterday. Peter Edelman, your response?

PETER EDELMAN: I am glad that Senator Rubio and some of the other Republicans have discovered poverty this week. These ideas are not going to get us anywhere. And there are a lot of workers out there who are struggling very hard, who would find it very constructive if Congress would act, if the Republicans would support President Obama’s proposal to get the minimum wage up to $10 an hour. I’m the first to say, long before Senator Rubio, that we need to have wages that are higher than that. We need to have returns from work that help people get out of poverty.

He is not proposing one thing. These are—turning it over to the states is a shopworn idea. It goes back decades. What it does is it leaves it to states like Mississippi and Texas and others that could care less. And [inaudible] of national standards like food stamps—are people hungrier in New York than they are in Mississippi? I don’t think so. And to say, “Well, the state will decide how hungry you are and how much we’ll pay,” makes no sense.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to ask you about the record, too, of some Democrats in the last few decades in pursuing, continuing to fight for the ideals of Johnson’s war on poverty. You, in 1996, resigned in protest after President Clinton signed the Welfare Reform Act. Could you talk about some of the retreat that has occurred on this war, even among Democrats?

PETER EDELMAN: One of the unfortunate things that we’ve done over the last 40 years, along with doing smart things like expanding the earned income tax credit and enacting the Child Health Insurance Act under President Clinton and the Affordable Care Act now, was to just slash a huge hole in our safety net, which was ending the AFDC, the old welfare program, which was not a satisfactory program and needed to be reformed in a progressive way, and instead, essentially, to throw people off the rolls, so that we now have less than four million people who are receiving cash assistance—and that’s about women and children in our country—so that we end up with six million people in our country whose only income is from food stamps. Six million people. That’s 2 percent of the American people. That’s an income of $6,000. In other words, about 30 percent of the poverty line. That was a bad thing that we did. In Wyoming now, for example, because it’s completely up to the states and there’s no legal right, there are only 600 people, 4 percent of poor children in Wyoming. And that’s actually typical of about half of our states. So, we made a huge mistake there, and that was self-inflicted in terms of our safety net and our anti-poverty strategies.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter, I want to go back to that moment in 1996. President Obama—President Clinton signs off on welfare reform. You were a top person in the Health and Human Services Administration. And soon after, you quit. We spoke to you right after that. This is what you said.

PETER EDELMAN: I am deeply opposed to the current welfare law and very troubled by what happened last year in the Congress. It ends a very fundamental entitlement of assistance to children in need. The way the law used to work—and this has completely ended—is that if a family with children satisfied the eligibility requirements—and those were national, federal requirements—they could get aid. What’s happened now is it’s entirely up to the state, each state, to decide whether it will help people at all, whether it will give them cash or help them with a voucher, whether it will have its system run by a public agency or by a corporation or some private agency.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was back in 1996, when you quit. And that wasn’t under a Republican president; it was under a Democratic president, President Clinton. Can you talk about, following up on Juan’s question, the Democrats’ role? I mean, you have, what, Senator Bernie Sanders, not even a Democrat, though he caucuses with the Democrats, he sort of this lone voice who constantly is beating the drum for preserving Social Security. And some of his biggest opponents actually are other Democrats. They just don’t speak about it very clearly to let you know what they’re doing.

PETER EDELMAN: We all need to do better. And Bernie Sanders is wonderful. He’s not alone. Look at Jan Schakowsky, for example, a member of Congress from Chicago, and the terrific bill that she has to put Americans to work, a kind of New Deal jobs program, which we still need, because the people of our country are still in a recession. So, nobody, none of—neither of our political parties is absolutely wonderful.

But if you look at the things that have been done—and as I said before, many of them have been done on a bipartisan basis—we’ve done a lot. We have good public policies. If we didn’t have the public policies that we have in place now, from Social Security to earned income tax credit, to child tax credit, food stamps, on and on, we would have twice as many people in poverty as we do right now. So we’ve done the right thing.

And what’s been happening is that we’ve been swimming upstream in an economy that’s changed just radically since 1968, when President Johnson left office, so that we’re now a low-wage nation. That’s the heart of what’s happened here. And so that even with the really important policies that have been led largely by Democrats, but far more bipartisan than we have right now, even with all of that, we still have 46 million people in poverty, which is terrible. And that is so significantly because of our economy, because of the structural changes due to globalization and technology.

And we really need to wake up and say, “OK, what do we do to get good jobs? What do we do to get better wages? And, of course, along with that, how do we educate our children for the jobs of the 21st century?” And then, with that, we do need a safety net that reaches all the people. We have 20 million people now who are in deep poverty, whose incomes are below half the poverty line, below $9,500 for a family of three. These are things that, across the board, both parties need to pay attention to in constructive ways. That quote from me that you just played about what happened to welfare and what they’ve done at the state level ought to tell us what would happen if Senator Rubio had his way and turned everything else over to the states.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m wondering if you care to comment on the hope for change. Obviously, the Occupy Wall Street movement changed the political discussion about economic inequality in our country, and now you’re seeing, at local levels, much—many more progressive leaders elected. We were commenting earlier about this transformation of New York City politics now with New York City poised to sharply increase its minimum wage now as a result of the new mayor, de Blasio, the new speaker and new elected officials citywide. Do you see hope at the grassroots level for some new examination and new initiatives that will overcome some of the gridlock that we’re faced with in Congress?

PETER EDELMAN: I do. And I’m so pleased to see the kinds of things that Mayor de Blasio is proposing—the talk about raising the minimum wage in New York City, his proposals about early childhood, which I think are just terrific and so important. And if you look at the activity around the country on minimum wage now—those airport workers in the little town of SeaTac and Seattle, the raising of the minimum wage statewide in California, and a lot of the other things that Jerry Brown is doing along with the Legislature there—so, I think that’s very, very important.

However, all of that can’t get us to where we have to go. I think those things will help support better national policies and a better national politics, but there are plenty of states, unfortunately, that don’t have the same kind of commitment that a New York or a California or other places in the country have. So, we need to have a better and stronger set of national policies, and in a balanced way, and not just public policy. We need to have people at the local level who are going to work in a civic way to improve our schools and to build the child care systems and to help young people get into the labor market.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you, Peter Edelman, for joining us, faculty director at the Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Public Policy at Georgetown University, top adviser to Senator Robert F. Kennedy, also member of President Clinton’s administration until he resigned in protest after Clinton signed the 1996 welfare reform legislation. His latest book, So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Iraq to talk about the violence there and what’s happening in Fallujah. Stay with us.

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