Thomas Cleary once wrote, “When the rich and well established, who should be generous, are instead spiteful and cruel, they make their behavior wretched and base in spite of their wealth and position.” I had been reading his translation of Back to Beginnings by Huancho Daorin a commentary on the Tao. The statement caused me to pause and ponder today’s vast gulf of income inequality in the United States and the world. It reminded me of news photos of protest signs asking, “When Did the War on Poverty become the War on the Poor?”
It’s been fifty years since President Lyndon Johnson’s first State of the Union speech on January 8, 1964. The centerpiece of his oration was his declaration of a “War On Poverty”. Johnson’s concern focused on a series of bills and acts that ultimately created Head Start, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, work-study initiatives, Medicare, Medicaid, VISTA, TRIO, and Job Corps. The programs brought about measurable results by reducing the poverty rate and improving living standards of America’s poor.
Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” came under the heading of his “Great Society” programs. The precedents for this agenda were Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” and the “Four Freedoms”. They included: 1. Freedom of Speech 2. Freedom of Worship 3. Freedom from Want and 4. Freedom from Fear. Furthermore, President John F. Kennedy had his own “New Frontier” program that became the seed for the “Great Society”.
The programs had an auspicious start, and soon the poverty rate leveled off. Today, poverty and homelessness is again a major topic of national debate. The problem of American poverty has recurred, partly, because the War on Poverty was purposely crippled from the start. Plus, the decline in support of LBJ’s Great Society programs came about because of their very successes. A smaller proportion of Americans worried about ensuring a minimum living standard for all.
Opponents of public aid continued to attack social liberals. During the congressional debates about the Great Society programs, severe compromises were made that caused the thrust of the War on Poverty to become piecemeal and purposely uncoordinated. The original, fully adequate, coordinated nature of the War on Poverty was compromisedd by the time the bills and acts moved out of debate then finally passed and signed into law.
We also need to remember that the war in Vietnam was escalating in scope and expense. The bleeding of funds away from a concerted effort to help the poor and into a hot war, overseas, did much to harm the credibility and energy of the Great Society’s efforts. In addition, congressional opposition prevented the passage of an income maintenance law.
Opponents of social programs whipped up a backlash among the white middle class to create the impression that the programs supported the needs of low income urban minority peoples. The sympathy waned just when needs increased during the economic downturns of the 1970s.
During the past few years, the poor have been increasingly marginalized and castigated for their condition. Not only are the poor increasing in number, but they have become prisoners of public disengagement. The focus of federal financial aid has been towards bailouts and incentives to wealthy individuals and already successful multinational corporations.
At the same time, sane public debate has been muted over the plight of the former members of the middle class. It has been a major struggle to obtain the needed funds for today’s training programs and education improvements in the face of opposition forces. Add to this conundrum, that the United States continues to be involved in military actions overseas that are draining precious resources and credibility of the United States. There appears to be little official will to help the disadvantaged among us.
I maintain an optimism, though. I see that there are concerted efforts and support, among regular Americans, to address the concerns of the poor. Here and there, we find individuals and groups working on bottom line planning to counter the exodus of jobs and opportunity.
It’s looking more and more like our War on Poverty is being taken up as a series of guerilla actions by concerned citizens.
The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that eleven out of the twelve Great Society initiatives are alive and well. Insiders know that the programs are still effective, but underfunded.