Why Can’t Conservatives Fight Poverty AND Reach the Middle Class?

This week marks the 50-year anniversary of LBJ’s ‘War on Poverty’

And Heritage Foundation scholars and researchers, among others, are on the case.

On Jan. 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson used his State of the Union address to announce an ambitious government undertaking. “This administration today, here and now,” he thundered, “declares unconditional war on poverty in America.”

Fifty years later, we’re losing that war. Fifteen percent of Americans still live in poverty, according to the official census poverty report for 2012, unchanged since the mid-1960s. Liberals argue that we aren’t spending enough money on poverty-fighting programs, but that’s not the problem. In reality, we’re losing the war on poverty because we have forgotten the original goal, as LBJ stated it half a century ago: “to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities.”

When President Johnson launched the War on Poverty on Jan. 8, 1964, he pledged “not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” Sadly, the half-century legacy of Johnson’s Great Society has not lived up to that noble goal.

The War on Poverty has not done justice to the poor. Our responsibility to our neighbors in need demands more: a redirection of public policy and a commitment from each of us to do what we can in our own communities.

Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered his famous “War on Poverty” speech. Johnson’s purpose was “not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” His arsenal of anti-poverty programs meant to strike “at the causes, not just the consequences of poverty” by providing individuals “the opportunity to develop skills, continue education, and find useful work.” Johnson’s speech ushered in his Great Society programs, including food stamps, Head Start, and Medicaid. Many of these programs continue today, and numerous others have been added to the mix. Currently, the federal government operates roughly eighty means-tested welfare programs.

Though President Johnson insisted the idea was “opportunity and not doles,” the War on Poverty has not lived up to that ideal. Government may be able to provide material assistance, but it has failed to address the deeper causes of poverty. Worse, it has discouraged the most important defenses against poverty in America—work and marriage. A half-century after Johnson’s call to arms, it is time to redirect the response. Welfare programs should be reformed to restore those in need to self-sufficiency, rather than locking them in dependence on government.

Toss in the pot some prominent Republicans, and you apparently get on Byron York’s last nerve.

Why aren’t we going after the middle class (like Obama did)?

Byron YorkYork, in today’s Washington Examiner (Why is the GOP launching a new anti-poverty campaign?):

This week many prominent Republicans are taking part in a new campaign to emphasize GOP solutions for poverty. Paul RyanMarco RubioRand Paul, Reince Priebus and others are marking the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty by outlining conservative ideas for improving the lot of the poorest Americans. And the effort is not just to commemorate an occasion; these leaders and others want the Republican Party to give anti-poverty policy a newly prominent place among GOP priorities.

York finds this new focus vexing, for several reasons:

  • First, because he finds it too nebulous.

It’s unclear whether Republicans will be able to actually enact any of their policy proposals — especially since so far, they haven’t actually agreed on what those proposals are, although they are talking about education reforms, tax changes, “economic freedom zones” and an increase in the child tax credit. Meanwhile, Democrats are putting new energy behind an anti-poverty agenda straight out of the Johnson era, highlighted by the expansion of Medicaid in Obamacare, a vastly expanded food stamp program and the push for a higher minimum wage.

  • Second, because he thinks it leaves Republicans open to the charge of engaging in empty talk for political effect.

The sparseness of the new Republican anti-poverty agenda has led some critics to charge that it’s just talk, that these Republicans, some of whom are planning to run for president, are discussing poverty to soften their image and re-position the GOP as a more compassionate party. But that is where the Republicans’ anti-poverty move makes the least sense.

  • Third, liberal Democrats like Obama and Schumer never talk about poverty, instead emphasizing over and over again that they’re championing the middle class.

On the campaign trail, Obama’s speeches were filled with references to the middle class. “We know this nation can’t thrive, can’t succeed without a growing, strong middle class.” “A future that’s built on a strong and growing middle class.” “Grow our middle class.” “When the other party has been willing to work with me to help middle-class families, like by cutting taxes for middle-class families.” “The status quo that’s been hurting middle-class families for way too long.” All those quotes were from just one Obama stump speech. (It was in Mentor, Ohio, on Nov. 3, 2012.) The president repeated the performance many, many times over during the course of the campaign.

And when Obama won, what did he say on election night? “America, I believe we can build on the progress we’ve made and continue to fight for new jobs and new opportunity and new security for the middle class.”

York’s bottom line is that we shouldn’t be talking about poverty during the 50-year anniversary of one of progressivism’ textbook failures because doing so

…ignores the (at least rhetorical) lesson of the Democrats’ recent successes: When it comes to winning votes, it’s all about the middle class.

Why can’t we see the connections better than this?

  • The War on Poverty is also a war on the middle class. It is a constant drain on the resources, freedom, and opportunity, not just for today’s poor, but today’s middle class.
  • In the last 85 years, Democrats have successfully branded Republicans as cold, cruel capitalists who wage a constant war against the poor and minorities. The results of this toxic branding aren’t limited to the poor. Entire swaths of the middle class are repelled by it. Many of these people are disillusioned right now with Democrats—with significant help from the Obamacare debacle and its effect on their pocket books. But they’re not going to trust Republicans until they are no longer convinced that Republicans are engaged in a war against poor people. 

Democrats and the GOP have opposite branding issues

Subsequently they have to reach out in opposite directions.

It’s not like we’re plowing new ground here. John Kerry had to convince a wary electorate that he was strong on national security. He failed. He’s still trying—and failing.

John McCain had to convince a war-weary public that, though still maintaining vigilance, he wasn’t going to entangle us in one military conflict after another. He failed. He’s still failing.

From my perch as a conservative/libertarian/security hawk, I see the Democrats as posers.

But I see the Republicans saddled with a brand that doesn’t match reality.

They need to fix their brand or they’re going to continue underperforming with the middle class.

Why can’t we walk and chew gum at the same time?

It’s going to take years to build a presence of trust in minority and poor communities that Republicans are going to need in future elections. York would say now’s not a good time.

But when you’re talking about building relationships with constituencies the other party has in their pockets—and have for years—there is no good time. There will never be a good time. There will always be another issue that’s more urgent.

But you have to begin somewhere. And the 50-year anniversary of a failed experiment in progressivism, coupled with the unraveling of Obamacare—which is in equal parts an attack on the middle class and the poor—sounds like a good place to start to me.

But we have to have the courage and creativity to attack both the urgent and the vital.

At the same time.


At NRO’s The Corner, Rachel Campos-Duffy writes a defense of Michael Barone (Michael Barone Is Right: Hispanics Are Winnable), in the process illustrating my point about reaching out now, knowing it’s a long-term process.

Barone is spot on in pointing out that Obamacares’ failures and the other unfulfilled promises of Democrats have created a potential window of opportunity for conservatives. Since 2008, Hispanic unemployment remains in double digits, 2.5 million more Hispanics are living in poverty, and Hispanic family income has dropped by $2,500. The question is whether conservatives know how to take advantage of the opportunity Obama’s mismanagement and failed liberal policies have wrought.

Read the rest here.


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