Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Are we winning or losing the War on Poverty?

Published: Sunday, Jan. 19 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

It has been 50 years since Pres Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty. Here’s our take on the on-going battle.

Chepko Danil, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Enlarge photo»

It has been 50 years since Pres. Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty. Here’s our take on the on-going battle.

Are we winning or losing the war?

Pignanelli: “Wars against nations are fought to change maps; wars against poverty are fought to map change.” – Muhammad Ali

In the 1960s our country needed to protect those falling through the cracks of the free market system. Most states were dilatory in protecting residents against racial discrimination, impoverishment and environmental disaster. The job defaulted to the Feds. Every American, regardless of political affiliation, should be proud that our nation rejected the starvation and disease afflicting fellow citizens.

Since then, poverty was reduced and millions of lives improved. Yet, simultaneously our economy expanded. Many crucial battles were won. But what worked decades ago, may be unsuitable in the 21st century. As with any military campaign, tactics must to be altered, new weapons developed and a different approach to attack the enemy to ultimately win the war. I passionately believe in the noble ends to eliminate destitution, but the means must be amended. This may include block grants to states, private-public partnerships, incentive-based mechanisms, vouchers, etc. The fight must continue.

Webb: Dealing with poverty goes right to the heart of the proper role of government. Has the welfare “safety net” helped millions escape the horrors of poverty? Or has it trapped millions in cycles of dependency with little hope of avoiding intergenerational poverty?

Certainly, it’s some of both. The experts say the poverty rate has declined from 19 percent in 1964 to 15 percent today. This 4 percent improvement has been financed by borrowing trillions of dollars, leaving a $17 trillion (and growing) debt to our children and grandchildren, in addition to another $75 trillion or so in unfunded liabilities in pensions and large entitlement programs.

We have fought the war on poverty by increasing the size and reach of government, extending many benefits even to middle-class Americans. And despite the best efforts of government, millions of people can’t escape generational poverty thanks in part to the collapse of family structure and support. Young men growing up without fathers, and young girls having babies with little family support, have a hard time escaping the cycle of government dependency.

Certainly, millions of Americans have benefited over the last 50 years from food stamps, education grants, housing subsidies, Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, unemployment benefits and so forth. But it has come at a cost to individual responsibility, and pro-growth policies and tax rates. The thorny long-term challenge is that the great pillars of the welfare state — Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security — are unsustainable under current tax and benefit levels. Taxes must be increased and/or benefits reduced or these programs won’t be there for our grandchildren.

Certainly, a reasonable safety net is necessary. But we ought to pay for it, not just go deeper into debt.

Are Republican or Democratic policies best suited to reduce poverty?

Pignanelli: As with other key issues (i.e. immigration, jobs, health care, etc.), solutions must be fashioned out of compromise and both sides willing to understand the realities. For example, I am a huge fan of the HeadStart program to provide early education to impoverished children and teach them critical learning tools. My mother was a HeadStart teacher for many years. (Of course, she was masterful in using this as another tool in her guilt arsenal. "How can you act this way with all the hardship I encounter every day?") Recent studies indicate this program may no longer be effective. But we need to keep trying. Indeed, the entire safety net should be scrutinized to determine how we can do better.

Try out the new DeseretNews.com design!
try beta learn more
Get The Deseret News Everywhere