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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.

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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.

Webb: Republicans have not been articulate enough to make a strong case that conservative policies can reduce poverty. With Democrats throwing more money at problems, the conservative alternative of hard work, family support, individual responsibility and accountability doesn’t seem very appealing. Liberal policies too often don’t solve structural problems. They put an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, rather than a fence at the top.

Republicans also make a mistake by trying to be too aggressive. We can’t dismantle the welfare state all at once or it will be too wrenching. And voters will throw out of office anyone who pushes dramatic change. So we have to scale back slowly, balancing benefits with what we can afford.

Should the minimum wage be raised and unemployment benefits extended?

Pignanelli: There are no conclusive studies demonstrating that the minimum wage is a destructive force in the economy. Containing exceptions for farmers and teenagers, baseline wages help bridge the gap between working families and the affluent. Most individuals receiving minimum wages are working disgusting and demanding jobs (I know, because I was there).There is no better social program than incentivizing hard work. Furthermore, our economy is going through another important, and needed, dramatic shift. As with all economic movements in capitalistic societies, there are winners and losers. We should honor the victorious, but help the unfortunate victims of the Great Recession and extend unemployment benefits.

Webb: An infinite supply of problems exist in the world on which to spend tax or business dollars. We can’t do everything and we must have balance. I believe the marketplace should establish wage rates. I believe unemployment benefits should not continue indefinitely. If benefits are extended, they should be paid for by cutting elsewhere, not by borrowing more money.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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