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After waging War on Poverty for 50 years, let's not surrender

January 12, 2014|Michael Hiltzik

Rubio's diagnosis is incomplete. He left out all the still-existing jobs that once paid a middle-class wage and offered middle-class benefits, but don't do so any longer. He left out the effect of corporate policies like that of Boeing, which just squeezed its unionized rank-and-file manufacturing workers with big cuts in pension and healthcare benefits — and came this close to hammering them on wages too — while showering its shareholders with an enormous increase in dividends and some $17 billion in stock buybacks, and awarding its chief executive a 20% raise. While talking up the economic virtues of marriage, Rubio forgot to mention the role of a fair distribution of the profits of productivity in fostering economic mobility.

What's dangerous about the claim that anti-poverty spending has been a waste is that it morphs easily into an excuse for doing less of it, or refashioning successful programs so they're cheaper and less effective. Among Rubio's big ideas is to turn federal anti-poverty programs over to the states "so they can design and fund creative initiatives that address the factors behind inequality of opportunity."

This idea of the states as laboratories of innovative government is one of the most treasured notions of politicians, but the few states where the reputation is deserved (including California) are outnumbered by those where state control of federal dollars will perpetuate inequality, inefficiency and stupidity.

One need look no further than the failure of 25 states to take up the government's offer of free Medicaid expansion to give their citizens access to health insurance. This dereliction has left some 5 million Americans uncovered — and it's hardly a coincidence that several of those states already rank at the bottom of the heap in public health programs. If they're laboratories, they're being run by mad scientists. These are some of the same states, by the way, that are systematically cutting back on voting rights.

Rubio proposes making these block grants to the states "revenue neutral," which sounds like delivering assistance to some recipients means taking it away from others. Economist Jared Bernstein also warns that it means those programs couldn't expand in times of need, like recessions. He points out that of three major safety net programs — food stamps, unemployment insurance and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) — the only one that didn't grow to meet the challenge of the recession was the last, which is the only one block-granted to the states.

People trying to be fair-minded about Rubio's platform have given him credit for at least taking a stab at showing empathy for the poor. But he's outgunned by members of his own party who think the answer to grinding poverty is for the poor to notch in their belts in the name of government austerity. They include people like our favorite hypocrite, Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Richvale), who instructed people on food stamps that they should accept a "modest" retraction of $20 billion in the program, though his own family collected more than $5 million in crop subsidies since 1995.

The worst flaw in any diagnosis of anti-poverty policy that focuses on the amount of money spent is that it treats poverty as a phase rather than as a condition. Enhancements to income are essential parts of any relief program, but as LBJ perceived, social mobility is the key. Poverty may yet win the war, proving Reagan right; but if that happens it's because American society has handed over victory by default.

Programs addressing that factor have really taken it in the gut during this last recession. The sequester, which still remains in effect, has hollowed out Head Start programs across the country and deprived thousands of families of adequate public housing. Turning control of anti-poverty programs to the states may satisfy some fantasy of grass-roots political resourcefulness, but when the states face budget crunches they invariably hack away at public education, public housing, public health.

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Read his new blog, the Economy Hub, at, reach him at, check out and follow @hiltzikm on Twitter.

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