As we celebrate the holiday season, we are instructed by virtually all faiths to turn our thoughts to the “least of these.” January will mark the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, but most notable today is how impoverished our discussion of poverty is.
Political leaders in both parties pledge to save the “middle class,” because polls show that most Americans consider themselves part of the broad middle. Democrats tout their “middle out” economics against Republican “trickle-down” economics. Republicans claim to be fighting to save small businesses and middle-class homeowners from the rapacious demands of government. Very little attention is given to the poorest among us.
Perhaps that is because poverty scars this rich nation. A recent report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) reveals that among 35 developed nations the United States ranks 34th in childhood poverty, above only Romania, a country several times less wealthy. Worse, we are also next to last in the depth of childhood poverty — the gap between average income of child’s family and that of poverty standard.
There is no argument about the facts. The poor were much more deprived when Lyndon Johnson declared his “war on poverty,” of course, but the percentage in poverty hasn’t changed much . Childhood poverty translates into poor health, poor education, and poor prospects. It isn’t an accident that the country frequently is at the top of the international education rankings – Finland — also has the lowest levels of childhood poverty in that U.N. study.
So you’d think Washington would be focused on what to do to reduce the number of children in poverty, to address mass unemployment, declining wages, family distress. Instead, Washington has decided to administer a little “tough love.” Last month, Congress cut food stamps by an average of 7 percent for 48 million Americans . And this week 1.3 million jobless Americans will lose unemployment benefits , with as many as 5 million left in the cold over the course of the coming year .
In his recent “exhortation,” Pope Francis wrote starkly about the moral challenge of poverty:
“We can only praise the steps being taken to improve people’s welfare in areas such as health care, education and communications. At the same time, we have to remember that the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day, with dire consequences. A number of diseases are spreading. The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation, even in the so-called rich countries. . . .[Emphasis added.]
“Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure but it is news when the stock market loses two points?”
Here, the pope was standing firmly in the long tradition of the church’s concern for the poor, but among American conservatives, the response was hysteria. Rush Limbaugh accused him of peddling “pure Marxism.” Louis Woodhill in Forbes scorned him for “Papal Bull” that seemed “copied and pasted out of The Nation or Mother Jones.” (I take that as a compliment.) Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), a pious Catholic, was notably silent.
In a recent speech on inequality, President Obama insisted, “We are a better country than this,” and he made the case for government action. But his agenda was far less impressive than his rhetoric — including lower corporate tax rates, more trade accords, “streamlined” regulations, a “responsible budget” (meaning continued austerity).
The president touted his “race to the top” education program, when, in fact, schools in low-income districts have been forced to fire teachers, leaving classrooms far more crowded. He bragged on his college loan efforts even as reports showed students are graduating even deeper in debt. He did repeat his call for universal preschool and raising the minimum wage, but neither of these has been able even to receive a vote in the Republican-led House.
The reality is that government programs to lift the poor work. Johnson’s War on Poverty brought poverty down dramatically, but that war was lost to the war in Vietnam. Today, the United States does a much better job lifting poor children out of poverty than it did before Johnson pushed through Medicare and Medicaid expansions, child nutrition programs, subsidized school lunches and more. Even so, the United States still does far less than other developed countries. In 2010, for example, Dutch government programs reduced its poverty rate from 25 percent to 7.5 percent , while the United States only reduced its rate from 28 percent to 17 percent .
Two fundamental issues should be at the center of our debate. The first, posed by Pope Francis and Barack Obama, is what must be done to make the economy work for working people? The second is that posed by the president: Are we a better country than this? Do we want to be? We know what works. We can afford it, even more than other industrial countries. But are we prepared to do what needs to be done?