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That Was a Short War on Poverty

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, October 14, 2005

It has long been said that Americans have short attention spans, but this is ridiculous: Our bold, urgent, far-reaching, post-Katrina war on poverty lasted maybe a month.

Credit for our ability to reach rapid closure on the poverty issue goes first to a group of congressional conservatives who seized the post-Katrina initiative before advocates of poverty reduction could get their plans off the ground.

As soon as President Bush announced his first spending package for reconstructing New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, the Republican Study Committee and other conservatives switched the subject from poverty reduction to how Katrina reconstruction plans might increase the deficit that their own tax-cutting policies helped create.

Unwilling to freeze any of the tax cuts, these conservatives proposed cutting other spending to offset Katrina costs. The headlines focused on the seemingly easy calls on pork-barrel spending. But some of their biggest cuts were in health care programs, including Medicaid, and other spending for the poor.

Thus, the budget Congress is now considering would cut spending by $35 billion and cut taxes by $70 billion. Excuse me, but doesn't this increase the deficit by a net of $35 billion?

Don't worry, said Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, one of the leading House conservatives. Cutting taxes for the rich is the best antipoverty program. "I'm mindful of what a pipe fitter once said to President Reagan," Pence said, according to the New York Times. " 'I've never been hired by a poor man.' A growing economy is in the interest of every working American, regardless of their income."

In other words, the conservatives have moved the conversation to ideas that go back to Calvin Coolidge's low-tax economics from the 1920s. And they say liberals are the folks with the "old" ideas?

If it didn't matter, I'd be inclined to salute the agenda-setting genius of the right wing. But since we need a national conversation on poverty, it's worth considering that conservatives were successful in pushing it back in part because of weaknesses on the liberal side.

Right out of the box, conservatives started blaming the persistent poverty unearthed by Katrina on the failure of "liberal programs." If there was a liberal retort, it didn't get much coverage in the supposedly liberal media.

It's conservatives, after all, who spent almost a decade touting the genius of the 1996 welfare reform and claiming that because so many people had been driven off the welfare rolls, poverty was no longer a problem.

Yes, welfare reform worked better than some of us expected in the 1990s. But Katrina underscored the limits of welfare reform by showing how many people had been left behind. It also brought home the failure of conservative economics. The Clinton economy -- bolstered by balanced budgets, tax increases on the rich and the expansion of innovative programs such as the earned-income tax credit and health coverage for the poor -- cut the number of poor people by 7.7 million between 1993 and 2000. Between 2001 and 2004, on the other hand, the number of those in poverty rose by 4.1 million.

Or consider that a recent Census Bureau report found that the percentage of Americans getting private job-based health insurance fell from 63.6 percent in 2000 to 59.8 percent in 2004. What held down the number of Americans without insurance altogether? The proportion insured under government programs -- Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program -- rose from 10.6 percent in 2000 to 12.9 percent in 2004. A time when more Americans than ever need government-provided health insurance is when we should expand government assistance for health care, not cut it back. It's also a good time for raising the minimum wage and increasing the help the earned-income tax credit offers the working poor.

But liberals also need to seize the initiative by speaking candidly and not defensively about the social causes of poverty. These include family breakdown and the heavy concentration of very poor people in a small number of neighborhoods in our big cities. Just because some conservatives are tempted, wrongly, to blame all poverty on problems in the family doesn't mean that liberals should shy away from talking about the difficulties faced by children in fatherless homes.

I was naive enough to hope that after Katrina the left and the right might have useful things to say to each other about how to help the poorest among us. I guess we've moved on. You can lay a lot of the blame for this indifference on conservatives. But it will be a default on the part of liberals if the poor disappear again from public view without a fight.

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