The Bi-Partisan Neoliberal War Against the Poor

A Review of Chris Hayes’ MSNBC Special on the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty

By Joseph M. Schwartz

The Jan. 13, 2014 MSNBC Chris Hayes special on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty superbly demonstrated how the anti-poverty programs begun in the 1960s today take tens of millions of people in the United States out of the ranks of the officially poor. It also highlighted how addressing the needs of low-wage women, particularly by raising the minimum wage and publicly funding child care, would benefit men as well as women and children. Yet the program failed to analyze, in depth, how 30 years of bi-partisan “neoliberal” economic policies of deregulation, regressive tax cuts, defunding of social welfare programs, and anti-union policies have driven poverty rates close to those that existed before the War on Poverty.

For example, while the program highlighted the need to expand public expenditure on child care, parental leave, and public housing, it never mentioned that 30 years of bi-partisan support for mass tax cuts for corporations and the rich, combined with wasteful military expenditure, is today used by “deficit hawks” of both parties to argue that we cannot afford to expand public provision.  

This contradiction manifested itself in an interview with a laid-off female Wisconsin public sector worker who is now exhausting her 401K to avoid homelessness. The program failed to note the role of Republican Governor Scott Walker’s slash-and-burn attacks on the public sector (and public employee unions) in the loss of her job. Nor did any analyst note that this is the first post-war recession in which public sector employment contracted rather than expanded. Why? Because of bi-partisan Congressional failure to appropriate federal funds to shore up state budgets.

In a further unconscious example of how neoliberal Democrats contribute to the growing inequality the program otherwise critiqued, leading Democratic military and budget deficit hawk Senator Kristen Gillibrand (D, NY) served as the program’s advocate for paid parental leave. Gillibrand is the darling of a finance industry hungry for tax shelters and a leading “tough on defense” Democrat and war hawk on Syria and Iran; no wonder her proposal falls far short of the amount of public funding needed to make such leave a reality for low-wage workers.

 The program did a better job of vividly demonstrating that the War on Poverty did not fail, as its programs today keep tens of millions out of poverty. Rather, the War on Poverty simply did not go far enough, particularly in its inability to institute universal health coverage, publicly-financed child care, and serious job training and full employment programs. But the core surviving War on Poverty and Great Society programs – Food Stamps, Medicaid, Head Start, Community Health Centers, Medicare, and increasing the real value of Social Security (and indexing benefits to inflation) – today take nearly 30 million people out of poverty.

The publication of socialist Michael Harrington’s The Other America in 1962 sparked popular concern over the plight of the poor, which led to President Johnson’s declaration of a “War on Poverty” in his Jan. 8, 1964, State of the Union address. The program captured the spirit of idealism behind that initiative through the presence of Maria Shriver, whose father, Sargent Shriver, headed the Office of Economic Opportunity under Johnson. Now, 50 years later, poverty is not only is still with us, but it has reached levels not seen since the early 1960s. The United States Census reported on Sept. 2012 that 47.1 million people – or 15.1 percent of the population  – now live in poverty, the highest number in 52 years, up from 11.7 percent in 2000.  Half of these individuals are children and nearly 60 percent of poor adults are women.

Almost half of this group has family incomes below 50 percent of the official poverty level. The Census Bureau’s current poverty line for a family of four, $22,113, is only 30 percent of the average family income. In 1962 the Census Bureau’s poverty line was 50 percent of the average income for a family of four, which in today’s dollars would be $32,000, rather than the official $22,000 poverty line. Thus, if we returned the poverty line to its real value in 1962, over 22 percent of families would today fall below the official poverty line – or the same percentage of U.S. families who were poor when Harrington wrote his book in 1962!

A recent Columbia University study estimates that without the War on Poverty programs, the official poverty rate would jump from 15.1 percent to over 31 percent.  The study demonstrates that today Food Stamps keep four million people in this country above the poverty line, while Social Security benefits keep over eight million of the elderly, disabled, and children of deceased working-age parents out of poverty. The most successful anti-poverty program instituted after the War on Poverty, the Earned Income Tax Credit, which significantly increased the ability of single-mothers to balance full-time work with child care responsibilities, today takes an additional six million people out of poverty. Long-term unemployment benefits, which the Republicans wish to cut, keeps another two million adults and children out of poverty.

Up through the mid-1970s, most observers agreed that the War on Poverty had been largely successful. From 1965 to 1978, the share of the population living in poverty dropped from one in five to one in nine.  After 1978, however, much of the effort to end poverty among children and adults under 65 was not only abandoned but actually reversed, as Republican-led administrations refused to increase the minimum wage and the Clinton administration “ended welfare as we know it.” From Reagan onwards, the federal government also largely abandoned any role in providing housing assistance for low-income people.

The biggest change in the face of poverty in the U.S. from the initiation of the War on Poverty to today is that poverty is now a problem of working families; it was not in 1962.  Today, one half of families living in official poverty have a full-time worker in the household. In 1962, a fully employed worker guaranteed that the family would live above the poverty line.  Why this change? In part, this is due to the conscious corporate assault on union strength. In 1962, 30 percent of U.S. workers belonged to a union; today only 12 percent do. The 30-year neoliberal war on workers and unions has so devalued the minimum wage that having a full-time job no longer guarantees that a family will escape poverty. Today, nearly one-quarter of full-time jobs in this country do not pay enough to lift a family of four above the family poverty line of $22,000! That is, one-quarter of full-time jobs in the U.S. pay poverty wages. Two-thirds of those who hold such jobs are female and one-half of low-wage earners are people of color.

This decline in real wages is part of the reason why in the U.S. today over 22 percent of children live in poverty; in no European member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development is the child poverty rate, after income transfers, higher than 10 percent. Any claim that the U.S. is “the greatest country” in the world is belied by this nightmarish statistic.

Thus, a powerful anti-poverty program that would also strike a blow for gender and racial equality would raise the minimum wage to match its real value in 1962.  Raising the minimum wage to that level, $10.10 in today’s dollars, would, according to University of Massachusetts economist Arindrajit Dube, take 4.6 million additional people out of poverty. If the minimum wage rose commensurate with the increase in productivity of the average U.S. worker since 1962, it would stand at a robust $17.20. Such a minimum wage would lower the existing poverty rate from 15.1 percent of people in the U.S. to less than nine percent!

So why so little progress in alleviating mass poverty? Since the War on Poverty, the right has engaged in a systematic disinformation campaign aimed at making the public see the poor as “immoral,” rather than workers without work or a living wage or single mothers who engage in productive work caring for infants or who, if they are to participate in the formal labor market, need living wages and publicly-financed, high-quality child care. 

The right’s disinformation about the causes of poverty and the “failures” of the War on Poverty has been carried out by a network of conservative journals, think tanks and political leaders who play on misogynist and racist stereotypes in regards to single motherhood.  The right consistently ignores the structural causes of poverty, particularly deindustrialization and massive inner-city unemployment. Consider Ronald Reagan’s made-up story of “welfare queens” driving Cadillacs in Detroit, and Charles Murray’s spurious claim that the allegedly “generous” benefits of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) provided a disincentive to work. We hear the same rhetoric today about “generous” unemployment benefits, even though there are well over three unemployed people for every job opening in the U.S.

The right in the 1980s and ‘90s succeeded in “racializing” the discourse about poverty in order to blame the victim, rather than focus on policies that would alter the structure of economic opportunities for the poor of all races.  In this highly ideologically charged period, the facts did not seem to matter; for example, AFDC’s real value declined 30 percent from 1970 to 1985, the publication year of Murray’s Losing Ground. Yet welfare rolls climbed due to deteriorating job market conditions, and ethnographic evidence found that most welfare recipients also worked off the books to make ends meet.  In fact, these studies demonstrate that well over 75 per cent of welfare recipients are active participants in the former labor market before their infants are born and return once their infants enter public school.

The price of Clinton’s “welfare reform,” a concession to the right’s agenda, has been severe. Given the punitive work requirements of Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF, the non-entitlement program that replaced AFDC) – and inadequate funding for child care – most women and children can no longer qualify for TANF. While interviewing the laid-off public sector worker from Wisconsin, Hayes lauded the woman’s ability to get a college degree in 1996 while she was an AFDC recipient. But he failed to mention that Clinton’s “welfare reform” banned subsequent generations of women from pursuing higher education while on TANF!  

The program  downplayed the mainstream Democratic Party’s leadership role in the war on women and children. In 1995, 12.1 million children and women received AFDC; today only 4.9 million receive TANF. And during the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, welfare rolls have expanded only from 4.5 million in 2008 to 4.9 million in 2012! The brutal realities of the war on the poor, particularly in regards to the well-being of women and children, can be summarized by two bone-chilling facts: in 2008, only 22 percent of poor children received welfare, compared to 61 percent of poor children in 1995. In 1991 12 percent of poor women had no job and received no welfare. By 2007 the number was 34 percent – and is likely much higher today.

By downplaying neoliberalism’s role in creating a massive working poor population, the Hayes special did not adequately convey the reality that poverty today is everyone’s problem. It affects not only some invisible “them” but touches all of us directly or indirectly, because poverty is directly caused by our “race-to-the-bottom” low-wage economy. In fact, since 2000, over 40 percent of people in the U.S. have experienced six months or more of living at the poverty level. Poverty is increasingly a function of low-wage workers trying to raise children. The conscious corporate and state attack on the right to organize unions has created a more vulnerable labor force, particularly in the service and care sectors. In addition, the absence of a road to citizenship and labor rights for over eight million undocumented workers contributes to a weakening of wages, benefits, and working conditions for all low-wage workers.

Republican proposals to cut Food Stamps by $40 billion over the next 10 years will throw millions more into poverty, as will bi-partisan efforts to cut the real value of Social Security and to continue through 2023 the sequester cuts to domestic discretionary spending which fall mostly on anti-poverty programs, such as low-income housing and heating assistance and federal aid to public schools disproportionately populated by low-income students (the Title I program).

We can choose either to perpetuate the “blame the victim” anti-poor policies of the past or to fight for the massive job training and full employment programs that Michael Harrington advocated but that were never adopted. Only mass mobilization by working and poor people can win the type of reforms that keep many more Northern Europeans out of poverty – universal child care and health care, plus larger and more effective job training programs and public investment. Doing so will involve legitimating the word “socialism” in U.S. politics (as the Democratic Socialists of America, founded by Michael Harrington, works to do), as any policies that threaten to redistribute wealth and power are red-baited off the table by both Republicans and moderate Democrats.

Thus, those who wish to fight poverty and curtail rampant inequality must work to overcome the bi-partisan elite consensus in favor of neoliberal policies that create massive poverty among not only children, the disabled, and the vulnerable, but also among working families.  While tackling the defects of the labor market that cause poverty, policy makers must also revalue the needs of children and their caregivers, both paid and unpaid. In addition, any comprehensive anti-poverty program must revitalize public education, as well as desegregate class- and racially-segregated neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces.

The wealthiest society in world history certainly has the resources to end poverty, but to do so will take political mobilization in favor of systemic change. Thus, the clarion call to justice of Michael Harrington’s The Other America still rings true: “The means are at hand to fulfill the age-old dream: poverty can now be abolished. How long shall we ignore [the] underdeveloped nation in our midst? How long shall we look the other way while our fellow human beings suffer? How long? … For until these facts shame us, until they stir us to action, the other America will continue to exist, a monstrous example of needless suffering.”


joeM.jpegJoseph M. Schwartz is a professor of Political Science at Temple University and a vice-chair of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), whose founder was the late Michael Harrington. Schwartz’s most recent book is The Future of Democratic Equality.


  Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership.