Don’t expect a second War on Poverty, regardless of who wins the election.
Picking up where Lyndon Johnson left off in the 1960s would seem a logical response to the campaign’s relentless criticism of economic inequality. But appearances are deceiving. Most proposals to reduce inequality — conspicuously from Hillary Clinton — are aimed at the middle class. Spillovers for the very poor would be mostly incidental.
These proposals include raising Social Security payments; increasing subsidies for early childhood care; reducing — or eliminating — college tuition at state colleges and universities; boosting the minimum wage. For his part, Donald Trump has pledged not to trim Social Security benefits and to cut taxes across the board. That automatically favors the rich and middle class because they pay most of the taxes.
There are two powerful reasons for slighting the poor. First, the poor are not where the votes are. Almost half of nonvoters (46 percent) have family incomes less than $30,000 a year, according to the Pew Research Center. Many of them are beneath the official government poverty line. (In 2014, the poverty line for a family of four was $24,230. The poverty rate — the share of Americans below the poverty line — was 14.8 percent in 2014, up from a recent low of 11.3 percent in 2000.)
The second reason is less recognized: There’s no consensus in public opinion for launching a second War on Poverty. But neither is there a consensus for shrinking existing anti-poverty programs. Indeed, the only real consensus rests on a contradiction. Americans support continuing today’s anti-poverty programs, even though they doubt these programs will succeed.
The latest evidence of this comes from a fascinating public opinion survey by the Los Angeles Times and the American Enterprise Institute, a right-of-center think tank. They repeated a poll of attitudes toward poverty that they first conducted in 1985. What they found was astonishing continuity.
The 1985 survey asked whether the poor are lazy or hardworking. The nationwide response was 50 percent hardworking, 25 percent lazy and 25 percent don’t know or failed to answer. The responses to a similar question this year reflected the same pattern: 65 percent hardworking, 21 percent lazy and 13 percent don’t know or failed to answer.
In both years, the survey asked who has “the greatest responsibility for helping the poor.” Despite the passage of time, the responses were virtually identical. Government was cited by 34 percent of respondents in 1985 and 35 percent today, followed by “the poor themselves” (21 percent and 18 percent) and churches (17 percent and 13 percent). The remainder was spread between families, charities and non-responses.
But here’s the contradiction: Government isn’t judged up to the job. Both surveys asked whether government knew enough to eliminate poverty even if it could “spend whatever is necessary.” In 1985, 70 percent said no. In 2016, the negative response was 73 percent.
What emerges is an ambiguous consensus. Government can and should help, but it can do only so much. The poor themselves — along with their families, churches and charities — must play the starring role. None of this constitutes a powerful mandate for a vast new anti-poverty program. We know more now than we did in the 1960s. We are no longer so optimistic and confident of success. To many Americans, eliminating poverty has become a mission impossible.
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