Shawn Fremstad
Talk Poverty, June 16, 2014

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Fifty years after President Johnson declared war on poverty, it’s time to reimagine anti-poverty work for the next fifty years. In doing so, one thing seems central: the need to build a broad-based progressive movement for economic justice and security. This movement needs to encompass not just the 15 percent living below ouroutmoded poverty line, but all people who struggle to make ends meet and aren’t getting the dignity, security, and compensation they deserve.

Much of our current approach to poverty dates back to the early 1960s. At that time, America was commonly viewed as an affluent society in which prosperity was widely shared. But there was growing recognition that we had a pesky poverty problem. The general sentiment back then is captured in the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which declared that the benefits of economic prosperity were “widely shared throughout the nation” but “poverty continues to be the lot of a substantial number of our people.” There was also a view that people living in poverty were a distinct minority, one very different from those in the middle and working classes. To cite perhaps the most influential example, Michael Harrington’s 1962 book on poverty, elites often thought of low-income people as “a different kind of people” living in an “other America.”

Given this, it seemed technically possible in the 1960s to eliminate poverty through a targeted approach that mostly relied on narrowly means-tested benefits and services along with education and training. And this approach seemed politically possible, despite its costs and narrow targeting, because it was assumed that the middle class would become increasingly prosperous and thus have little objection to expanding targeted programs until poverty was eliminated.

It could have worked. As economist Elise Gould has highlighted, if the gains from economic growth had continued to be shared with middle- and low-income people in the same way as they were in the initial decades following World War II, the official poverty rate would have fallen to somewhere near zero in the 1980s.

Of course, that’s not what happened, in large part because of what President Reagan called the conservative “reorientation of the role of the federal government in our economy” and the consequent growth in inequality over the last several decades. As a result, the real incomes of Americans in both the bottom and middle of the income distribution have barely budged since the late 1970s, even as productivity continued to grow steadily and those at the top have seen extraordinary gains. Shared prosperity is at best a distant memory, something Baby Boomers tell the grandkids about.

Adding insult to injury, conservatives have consistently used their own version of “other America” rhetoric to cast low-income people as idle takers who are dependent on benefits paid for with middle-class tax dollars. According to this logic, poverty is mostly a matter of bad behavior abetted by means-tested programs created by a bunch of ‘60s liberals. And the extent to which our economy and social contract no longer work as they should for millions of low- and middle-income Americans is viewed as beyond the scope of a discussion of poverty.

Hence, Rep. Paul Ryan’s “inner city” comments, his immensely strange idea that his “work on poverty is a separate thing” from his slash and burn budgets, and the restricted purview of his recent report on the War on Poverty, which neglects to mention many of our most effective anti-poverty strategies, like the minimum wage,unions, and Social Security.

We live in a vastly different economy and have a very different politics than fifty years ago. This means we can’t think of poverty like Paul Ryan does, as a “separate thing” from growing inequality or the well-founded concerns that millions of middle-income Americans have about their own economic security, and that of their children. As Sr. Simone Campbell put it recently, “If we just combat poverty, we are only going to be focusing on a symptom.” To make real progress going forward, we need to build and be part of a progressive movement that modernizes the social contract—the set of public and private structures designed to promote economic security and opportunity—and makes shared prosperity a reality from the bottom up and the middle out.

The profound economic change we’ve seen also means we can’t afford to think of the anti-poverty movement as a “separate movement”—a “for-poor-people-only” movement—that focuses solely on means-tested programs, and is separate from the labor, women’s and other cross-class economic justice movements. Along these lines, Gov. Ted Strickland made an important point in a post last month:

… sometimes missing from progressive consciousness … is an awareness of the importance of organized labor. We became as egalitarian as we did as a nation because working people gained power and influence by banding together and bargaining for better wages and benefits and safety conditions. And as economic disparities have increased over these last few decades, the influence of organized labor has decreased. So whether it’s the same paradigm or not, we’ve got to find some way for people to act collectively in their self-interest.

Some of the best work addressing the challenge Gov. Strickland identifies has been highlighted by in recent months, including the work of Caring Across Generations, Jobs with Justice, the Fight for $15 in Seattle, Center for Community Change Action’s economic justice campaign, Witnesses to Hunger, and other local efforts to engage low-income people in advocacy as Joel Berg and others call for. But we also need more of the kind of cross-class, dues-paying citizen and membership associations that Theda Skocpol has argued are necessary to “re-democratize” politics, and to link local groups to debates in Washington, D.C.

Because this is such an essential conversation, it can’t be limited to a relative few working in think tanks, national advocacy organizations, national foundations, and privileged academic posts. So I hope that will continue to spark lively conversation about what anti-poverty advocacy and research should become over the next decade and beyond, and bring lots of new and diverse voices into this debate.

Shawn Fremstad is a Senior Fellow with the Center for American Progress and a Senior Research Associate with the Center for Economic and Policy Research.