Sunday, November 13, 2011

the War on the War on Poverty

Michele Bachmann in last night's debate, echoing a common refrain among Republicans:
The "Great Society" has not worked and it's put us into the modern welfare state. If you look at China, they don't have food stamps. If you look at China, they're in a very different situation. They save for their own retirement security…They don't have the modern welfare state and China's growing. And so what I would do is look at the programs that LBJ gave us with the Great Society and they'd be gone.

This rubs me particularly raw since my favorite president happens to be Lyndon Baines Johnson, so I'd like to answer. Putting aside for a moment Bachmann's insinuation that we should be less socialist and more capitalist, ya know, like the People's Republic of China, let's talk about Bachmann's promise to eliminate the Great Society.

I'll start with the obvious and most politically relevant point: the capstone of the Great Society was the creation of Medicare, a program that is not only hugely popular among Bachmann's own constituents, but that she has personally promised to protect on numerous occasions. In fact, she ran against the Affordable Care Act specifically because it cut Medicare funding.

That the moderators would let her suggest eliminating the Great Society without making her answer to the abolition of Medicare is a major reason why I believe these debates are altogether pointless.

Now let's talk about the Great Society as a whole. Despite Bachmann's typically ignorant and cliche point that it "has not worked," the point of the Great Society was to lower the poverty rate. That's the standard by which we should gauge whether it "has not worked." Luckily, the federal government has been keeping tabs on the poverty rate for decades, including during the '60's. Anyone want to guess how the Great Society performed?
...from 1963 when Lyndon Johnson took office until 1970 as the impact of his Great Society programs were felt, 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. Since then, the poverty rate has hovered at about the 13 percent level and sits at 13.3 percent today, still a disgraceful level in the context of the greatest economic boom in our history. But if the Great Society had not achieved that dramatic reduction in poverty, and the nation had not maintained it, 24 million more Americans would today be living below the poverty level.

That's right: Lyndon Johnson cut the poverty rate in half within a decade. That's a monumental, jaw-dropping achievement. If there were a contest for greatest presidential achievement of the 20th century, I would nominate this one. It was an expensive achievement as well, yes, but if you're going to propose gutting the Great Society to save money, you should have to contend with this fact.

It's still the social safety net, largely woven from the Great Society, that protects that vulnerable 10+ percent of Americans from destitution, by the way.

The difference between 28.6% of the American population and 17.8% is about 33 million people who would otherwise be under the poverty rate.

Thirty-three million people.

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