Clinton Dodges the War on Poverty

July 13, 1999

Mark Weisbrot
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, July 13, 1999

President Clinton’s poverty tour last week was supposed to call attention to the needs of Americans at the bottom of the income ladder. But what it really highlights is our government’s complete indifference to the problem of poverty in America.

Talk is cheap, and so is the Clinton administration when it comes to doing anything for the poor. This is a case where numbers speak louder than words. The annual amount of money that the President has proposed to spend for his “New Markets Initiative” is less than a few days supply of cruise missiles dumped on Belgrade in April.

History repeats itself, as the saying goes, first as tragedy and then as farce. In the 1960s we had leaders, to whom the media was forced to pay attention, who rallied the populace for a “War on Poverty.”

“The curse of poverty has no justification in our age,” proclaimed Martin Luther King, Jr. thirty-two years ago. “It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization…the time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct, and immediate abolition of poverty.”

The tragedy was, as King discovered, “that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money” away from the effort. But even the architects of the Vietnam war, like President Johnson, were willing in principle to make “a commitment to eradicate poverty” in America.

We have 70% more real income per person than we had when the War on Poverty was launched, and the economy is booming.  But President Clinton, with a carefully orchestrated series of photo-ops and campaign-like stops from Hazard, Kentucky to Watts in Los Angeles, is not making any commitments.

A number of critics have pointed out that this is the same President whose dismantling of the Federal AFDC (Aid to Families With Dependent Children) program has thrown millions of poor single mothers into the labor market, with little chance of their earning enough to escape from poverty. According to Census data, the number of people living in extreme poverty (less than half of the poverty level) has actually increased from 1995 to 1997, in spite of healthy economic growth.

But the President’s counter-productive role on this issue did not end with welfare reform. He is now committed to paying off the national debt over the next 15 years, and the budget surpluses that he is counting on assume that we will cut scores of billions of dollars of spending from Federal anti-poverty programs. So with his left hand he is offering a paltry $980 million over five years for impoverished areas, while the budget in his right hand cuts spending for poor Americans by at least fifty times that amount.

Of course most of these proposed cuts are just posturing to counter the Republicans, who are even less interested in helping the poor, and they will probably never happen. But by placing the economically irrelevant national debt as top priority, and agreeing to Republican demands to increase military spending, the President guarantees that the foreseeable future will hold no hope for America’s poor.

We entered the 1960s with a national debt that was about the same as it is today, relative to our national income (46%). Yet few people were concerned that this debt would choke off growth, and of course it did not. Largely as a result of increased federal commitments, the poverty rate among children fell from 27% in 1960 to 14% in 1973. It now hovers around 20%, and will inevitably worsen when the current economic expansion comes to an end.

For all the President’s econo-babble about skills and computers in an “information society,” the main cause of poverty in America is not technological change but low pay. The minimum wage now buys about 35% less than it did in 1968. And thirty years ago, it was not uncommon for manufacturing wages to pay enough to support a family. But that was before our government committed itself to a low-wage strategy in both its international and domestic economic policies– a strategy yet to be challenged by the Clinton administration.

“Too little, too late” is too generous a description of the President’s charade.

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