Agitate, America!: In the midst of the war on the War on Poverty
By Nancy Churchill
A Progressive Visionary
I happen to think a “war” to end poverty is the only kind of war worth fighting. Fifty years ago this month, President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty, correctly identifying poverty as a “wastage of resources and human lives” (you might say, America’s treasure). By August, both houses of Congress had passed the groundbreaking Economic Opportunity Act with bipartisan support. It was a different America.
No sooner had the ink dried on the signature, however, than the critics began registering displeasure. Even so, by the 1970s, programs like the Jobs Corps, Neighborhood Youth Corps, Urban and Rural Community Action programs, Assistance for Migrant Ag workers, and Volunteers in Service to America had already made a difference.
In the words of Johnson aide Joseph Califano, “From 1963, when Lyndon Johnson took office, until 1970, as the impact of his Great Society programs were felt, the portion of Americans living below the poverty line dropped from 22.2 percent to 12.6 percent, the most dramatic decline over such a brief period in this century.” The percentage of African-Americans below the poverty line dropped from 55 percent in 1960 to 27 percent in 1968, according to Wikipedia.
By then, however, killing people took priority over ending poverty, and the Vietnam War claimed much of the funding. In 1971, soon-to-be Associate Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell addressed a fiery memo (manifesto, really) to Eugene Sydnor Jr., director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, urging him to rescue our “free enterprise system” from “attacks” by the likes of “Communists, New Leftists and other revolutionaries who would destroy the entire system” (http://reclaimdemocracy.org/powell_memo_lewis).
Business must launch “guerrilla warfare,” he said, against a small, but mighty, faction “who propagandize against the system, seeking insidiously and constantly to sabotage it,” revolutionaries from “college (campuses), the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences.” And politicians.
He directed particular ire at business critic Ralph Nader for exposing auto manufacturers for rejecting life-saving safety modifications because of their cost. “Free enterprise,” apparently, must be free from regulation, from oversight, from taxation. Free, that is, to exploit with impunity.
Soon followed creation of the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and other conservative think tanks dedicated to changing the dialogue. By Ronald Reagan’s presidency, government as a solution to end poverty had morphed into “the problem” itself, a problem to be eliminated. Cue the dysfunction of America today.
Corporations and their CEOs were the beneficiaries of this culture, workers the losers. Fifty years after the War on Poverty began, Republicans crow about its failure, even as they spread the gospel of austerity to eliminate the social safety net.
Think tanks “score” legislative votes, threatening to “primary” those who vote to, say, extend unemployment assistance. Republicans appear dedicated to hurting Democrats by obstructing them, but their votes harm constituents — the unemployed, seniors, families, children — but not Democrats.
We the People must persuade them to end their War on the War on Poverty.
Nancy Churchill was raised in the D.R.C. (Congo), raced stock cars on short dirt tracks for 25 years, and is a proud, lifelong member of “We, the People.” She lives in Oregon, Ill.