The “war on poverty” marked its 50th anniversary this year. As with other metaphorical wars (inflation, drugs, terror) and actual wars (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan), this war has reached no conclusion.
The war on poverty was declared by President Lyndon B. Johnson in his 1964 State of the Union speech. It had admirable goals. It brought about many things now taken for granted: Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start, the Job Corps, as well as community health centers, community development corporations and Volunteers in Service to America (Vista).
Is the war on poverty a success or failure? That depends on one’s political persuasion, on those who feel government should help versus those who oppose “big government.”
The poverty rate at the time of LBJ’s declaration was 19 percent. Today it is 15 percent.
There is never a complete victory, unconditional surrender. The war on poverty, like any unsettled war, creates a gap, a demilitarized zone, a no-man’s land.
This war’s gap — the income gap — the space that separates the highest earners from the lower earners in the nation — is increasing.
“In 2012, the incomes of the top 1 percent rose nearly 20 percent compared with a 1 percent increase for the remaining 99 percent,” said a report by The Associated Press.
“The share of the national income going to the top 1 percent of households rose from 10 percent in 1964 to 22 percent in 2012,” said the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The poverty rate at the declaration of the War on Poverty 50 years ago was 19 percent. Today it is 15 percent.
There are two entities: the wealth gap and the income gap. Although an economist would not express it this way, wealth is stuff; income is the means by which to acquire stuff. Income inequality is the more important of the two. Income inequality adversely affects social solidarity and community.
There were 49.7 million poor people, 16 percent of the U.S. population, in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That broke the record of 46.5 million poor people in the U.S. in 2011, or 15 percent of the population.
Catholic social teaching does not require absolute equality in the distribution of income and wealth, the U.S. bishops said in the 1987 pastoral “Economic Justice for All.” It could be permissible to satisfy a need for incentives and greater rewards for greater risks.
The pastoral emphasizes the moral norms for meeting the needs of the poor and for the increased participation of the poor in social life.
“These norms establish a strong presumption against extreme inequality of income and wealth as long as there are poor, hungry and homeless people in our midst,” they wrote.
Social and economic inequalities should exist only if they provide the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society.
Poverty is certain to be an issue in 2014, an election year. A war on poverty is not class warfare.
Economic justice for all is not a red or blue issue.
Kent is the retired editor of archdiocesan newspapers in Omaha and Seattle. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.