It’s time for new anti-poverty program

It’s been more than 50 years since LBJ launched the “War on Poverty” and more than 20 since Tommy Thompson launched his “Work Not Welfare” campaign in Wisconsin. Neither worked very well to improve the lives of people in the lower ranks of the economy.

After dip in the late 1960s, for instance, U.S. poverty levels have pretty much stayed the same since about 1970. It is about one-third for single moms. with children. For elders over 65, it has been stagnant at one in ten.

In Wisconsin, the latest reports show an overall poverty rate of about 13% compared to 16% for the country as a whole. The City of Milwaukee is more than twice the state rate.

FYI: the most recent definition of poverty is less than $24,250 for a family of four.

Wage rates started to tick up during the last couple quarters, as the state and nation get closer to full employment. Raises of late have been in the 3-4% range, up from 2% during the long recovery from the Great Recession.

That said, we as a country, state, indivduals, businesses,non-profit organizations have a lot of work to do to lift all our citizens out of poverty.

I had a first-hand look at how well intended poverty programs went awry. It was 1969, Richard Nixon had won his first term. On election night,, and I had arrived in D.C. the night that he got elected for a journalism fellowship sponsored by the American Political Science Association. No Republican wanted to take the job of running the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the agency at the center of LBJ’s war on poverty.

Four months by after President’s inauguration, the OEO job was still going begging, and Sargent Shriver was still running the agency. Finally, a four-term Republican congressman from Illinois, Donald Rumsfeld, agreed to take the job if it were made a cabinet position. (He later became defense secretary twice.)

I was a fellow in his office, and he took me with him to help run the poverty program. Rumsfeld went to Tthe Hill, where he was very popular and used his political chits to save Head Start, the most successful part of the OEO array of programs.

Many other programs, like VISTA and the Community Action Program had become very political and therefore ineffective and unsustainable. Part of my job was to clean up the messes. We found missing commercial fishing boats, bought for training purposes, on a beach in Bimini. A TV production studio in California, also intended for training, was shut down by a district attorney because it was producing porn movies. Accompanied by a Spanish-speaking CIA agent, and at the insistence of the governor of Puerto Rico, I converted the sponsorship of the poverty program there from the Communist Party there to the Catholic Church.

The point here is that we have learned a lot about what works to combat poverty and what doesn’t.

Flash forward to 2015 and a New Year. There is now a bipartisan roadmap to the fight against poverty. The left-leading Brookings Institution and the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute pulled together scholars from across the political spectrum and studied what had worked and what hadn’t over the last decades.

Surprisingly in an era of hyper-partisanship, they arrived at a consensus. It includes far-reaching recommendations on such policies as job creation, job training, preschool and post-secondary education, promotion of marriage as a poverty reducer, long acting contraceptives and minimum wage increases.

Wisconsin could use this roadmap as a starting point for a renewed set of anti-poverty measures.

To show that bipartisan policies might be possible, the report cites the support by President Obama and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) for an expansion of earned income tax credits (EITC). Both conservatives and progressives support a bonus in the form of a negative income tax for people who go to work for low wages. They want to make going to work pay.

In short, there is common ground on some of these under-addressed but critical strategic issues.

The report writers cite our most quotable of presidents, Abraham Lincoln, that we muost “clear paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”


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