In 1966, when the notion that the Vietnam War was not going well for America was starting to take root in the national consciousness, a U.S. senator from Vermont named George Aiken had a proposed solution to the crisis that resonates to this day.
“Declare victory,” Aiken proposed, “and get out!” In that case, it might have been very good advice (after all, roughly 50,000 more American troops died after it was offered) even though any American who turned on the nightly TV news for more than 30 seconds could see that victory was nowhere in sight in Southeast Asia. Aiken’s idea came up again when America found itself in a similar quagmire in Iraq in the mid-2000s, but in the end our leaders and citizens were still too “reality-based” to accept a declaration of victory that the world would clearly see as false.
But times have changed in the reality department.
And so it was the unreal (and not in the good sense) Trump administration made an announcement last week that got buried under news of President Trump’s Helsinki lovefest with Vladimir Putin but which deserves a closer look, especially since in an era of runaway dishonesty it’s one of the bigger lies to come out of Washington.
Remember the War on Poverty that Lyndon Johnson declared in 1964 and which briefly rose and then clearly lost steam, as residents of America’s most hardscrabble neighborhoods know by simply looking out their second-floor window.
It’s time, according to President Trump’s top economic advisers, to declare victory and get out.
The president’s Council of Economic Advisers released a white paper that declared the War on Poverty “is largely over and a success” — cherry-picking one statistic that looks at the buying power of American families to make the rather stunning proclamation that economic deprivation has largely been eliminated in the 50-plus years since LBJ’s famous speech.
The white paper shuns the argument that’s largely reigned in Republican circles since the time of Ronald Reagan — that large-scale social-welfare programs like food stamps, Medicaid or housing assistance have been failures that haven’t so much reduced the rolls of the poor as created a culture of dependency. In changing the narrative to now declare the War on Poverty a roaring success, Trump’s advisers are trying to find a new path toward an agenda that would require more beneficiaries to find work in a time of low-employment, and which would ultimately reduce government spending on the safety net.
There’s just one little problem: The idea that the War on Poverty is over is preposterous.
“The top-line takeaway is that it’s not just climate change that President Trump is actively trying to deny,” Rebecca Vallas, who was on the front lines of Philadelphia’s poverty wars as a top lawyer for Community Legal Services before heading to Washington, where she has a national platform as vice president for poverty issues with the left-leaning Center for American Progress. She told me Trump’s economic advisers twisted the data with the goal of justify spending safety-net spending cuts — just months after a huge tax cut funneled federal dollars upwards to large corporations and the wealthy.
3. It tells the 40+ million Americans who struggle with hunger to quit their complaining because “difficulty in obtaining food” and “reduced diet quality as a consequence of limited resources” aren’t *really* hunger. pic.twitter.com/YRjB6wzZEc
— Rebecca Vallas (@rebeccavallas) July 16, 2018
Vallas said the spending numbers cited to claim the phony victory in the War on Poverty fail to account for how much of that economic activity results from things like predatory payday loans or overmaxed credit cards, nor does it take into account that many of today’s city dwellers are forced to spend well over half of their income on rent.
Other statistics ignored by the Team Trump victory dance on poverty tell a very difference story: That America’s gains in the War on Poverty came largely in the early years when LBJ initiated Medicaid and other Great Society programs, while progress stalled and even ebbed after government started rolling those programs back even in an era of raging income inequality, in which working class families have struggled to get a raise.
A major study released in May by the non-profit and non-partisan United Way discovered that more than 40 percent of American families can’t afford middle-class essentials like rent, transportation, child care or a cellphone — anchored by people who sometimes don’t fall below the official poverty line yet are “the economically forgotten.” A similar number has less than $400 in the bank, according to the Federal Reserve. What’s more, about 5.3 million Americans, according to the United Nations, live in the kind of extreme $4-a-day poverty more prevalent in the most underdeveloped nations. Philadelphia continues to have the highest rate of “deep poverty” of any large U.S. city.
Our so-called victory on the War on Poverty is certainly news to the hundreds of local activists who’ve been getting arrested during protests in Harrisburg this year or who rode buses to march on the U.S. Capitol on June 23 as part of the grand revival of the Poor People’s Campaign initially created in the 1960s by the late Dr. Martin Luther King. They say their fight over issues like a livable $15 minimum wage and critical housing reforms is just beginning.
“Our own ability to survive is constantly under attack,” Nijmie Dzurinko, a leader of the Poor People’s Campaign here in Pennsylvania and a former executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union, told me. She said “I think there has been a concerted effort on the part of the powers that be over the last 40 years to undo any gains that were won by working people — you see that very clearly with attacks on unions…[and] attacks on the safety net.”
It’s perhaps not a coincidence that Team Trump released its white paper right when the Poor People’s Campaign was gaining steam to put the problem of poverty back on America’s front burner. But an honest conversation about being poor in America would undermine two ambitions of the current administration.
The first, and certainly the most important in the short run, is the idea of imposing work requirements for federal programs food assistance, Medicaid and low-income housing subsidies — the goal of an executive order signed by Trump. Such a move would save some of the dollars lost to tax cuts for the rich, have the perverse effect of hurting those most in need, and overlook that the real way to employ more poor folks is to invest money in programs like job training or child care.
What’s troubling in the bigger picture — as pointed out by anti-poverty fighter Vallas, who correctly calls the white paper more “gaslighting” from Team Trump — is the ever-widening war on reality. It feels a bit like World War II — in the way that the White House keeps opening up new fronts in its global jihad against truth, whether it’s climate change or environmental protection, or Russian influence on our election and our policy pretzel twists toward Moscow, and now the way that we view the poor.
Presidential lying was almost funny when it dealt with the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration. But wen the falsehoods deal with the size of the spread on a struggling single mom’s kitchen table, it’s not humorous at all. In the War on Poverty, this is no time to bring the troops home.
Philadelphia Media Network is one of 19 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.