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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Tomasky: War on Poverty Worked

The Republican revisionist history machine is cranking up in a big way to address the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s War on Poverty. At The Daily Beast Michael Tomasky’s “Marco Rubio Is Wrong: The War on Poverty Worked” provides a well-crafted takedown:

Our problem is when conservatives like Rubio talk gibberish: “Isn’t it time to declare big government’s war on poverty a failure?” No, it isn’t. It’s high time to say the war on poverty was a success. A wild success, indeed, by nearly every meaningful measure. But no one thinks so, and a big part of the reason is that most Democrats are afraid to say so. They’d damn well better start. If we’re really going to be raising the minimum wage and tackling inequality, someone needs to be willing to say to the American people that these kinds of approaches get results.
You may have seen the big Times piece Sunday that looked back over the half-century war on poverty, kicked off by Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 State of the Union address. The article noted that in terms of health and nutrition and numerous other factors, the poor in the United States are immeasurably less immiserated today than they were then. But it did lead by saying the overall poverty rate in all that time has dropped only from 19 to 15 percent, suggesting to the casual reader that all these billions for five decades haven’t accomplished much.
What’s wrong with thinking is that we have not, of course, been fighting any kind of serious war on poverty for five decades. We fought it with truly adequate funding for about one decade. Less, even. Then the backlash started, and by 1981, Ronald Reagan’s government was fighting a war on the war on poverty. The fate of many anti-poverty programs has ebbed and flowed ever since.
But at the beginning, in the ’60s, those programs were fully funded, or close. And what happened? According to Joseph Califano, who worked in the Johnson White House, “the portion of Americans living below the poverty line dropped from 22.2 percent to 12.6 percent, the most dramatic decline over such a brief period in this century.” That’s a staggering 43 percent reduction. In six years.

Tomasky goes on the explain that the war in Southeast Asia and unrealistic expectations about abolishing poverty combined to unravel much of the progress. Yet, looking back with perspective,

But even for its shortcomings, the Great Society and the war on poverty did absolutely amazing things. I’d like my fellow West Virginia natives to imagine our capital-poor state without the billions the Appalachian Regional Commission has spent since 1965 on roads, local economic development, community health clinics, and numerous other projects. The Great Society brought federal billions to schools, made college possible for millions of kids from modest means, educated innumerable doctors, and so much more.

Yet, conservatives will continue “to point to the existence of poor people and therefore to make the claim that the whole thing has been a failure.” That’s been their time-honored practice of parroting lies until the MSM is suckered into repeating them as “on the other hand” false equivalence scale-balancing.
Democrats can’t give the Republicans and their MSM minions a free ride regarding their myth-mongering about the War on Poverty. As Tomasky concludes, “If we are entering a new phase of fighting a war on inequality, Americans need to know some facts about the last war that firmly support the view that the effort and resources have done far more good than harm. The Democrats just have to be willing–and proud–to say it and say it and say it.”

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