Fifty years ago U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, also known as LBJ, famously declared a “War on Poverty.” According to Sasha Abramsky, author of The American Way of Poverty, LBJ’s war was a failure. The author wants current U.S. president Barack Obama to launch the “War on Poverty Mark II,” but will that new conflict come about? And what are the odds of victory?
The first War on Poverty failed, Abramsky explains, because, “technocrats took control,” and they set about “reducing a massive moral conundrum—poverty amidst plenty—into a set of scientific and statistical data. Once that occurred, the energy was sucked out of the process.” And of course poverty remains.
“Not since the Great Depression have so many people been beaten down by vast, destructive forces,” writes Abramsky. To fix it will require nothing less than a “War on Poverty Mark II.” This one will succeed because now “we have the knowledge and the technological wherewithal to create flexible, fast-responding, non-punitive, counter-cyclical welfare programs.” These would presumably work as models of efficiency and a “steeply progressive” tax would pay for it all.
Higher taxes turn out to be the new war’s strategic weapon, which trains the government’s gun sights on those Abramsky sees as the enemy: the anti-tax, anti-government movement that has managed to convince people “that taxes are a mugging rather than an investment.” So the War on Poverty turns out to be a War on People too, another reason Americans are likely to see it happen.
The president has already marshaled the machinery of government, in the form of the Internal Revenue Service, against groups that favor limited government and lower taxes. Now it turns out that the person leading the investigation of this abuse is a donor to the president and the Democratic National Committee. What a cozy world.
Meanwhile, from his recent militant rhetoric about income inequality, the president seems favorably inclined to a new war on poverty. This one will fail, just like the one LBJ launched fifty years ago, but with more collateral damage.