Wars on poverty: Battles exceed wins

Posted at 07:45 a.m. PDT; , July 9, 1999
by Deb Riechmann
The Associated Press

Like President Clinton, who has just finished a four-day poverty tour, President Johnson made a swing through the nation in 1964, allowing TV cameras to give comfortable Americans a glimpse of life in the very poorest pockets of the United States.

The publicity promoted Johnson's "War on Poverty." But while the anti-poverty programs begun in the 1960s helped lift the incomes of millions of individuals above the poverty line, they and other initiatives since have had less success nurturing economic revival in impoverished places.

That's what Clinton aims to do. But historically, more progress has been made among poor people than poor places.

Skirmish on poverty

"There was never a war on poverty," said Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo, who went with Clinton on his poverty tour. "Maybe there was a skirmish on poverty for a brief period of time. We have done the broad people-based programs - Social Security, Medicaid, welfare. But we have never done intensive geographically targeted work."

Clinton said these ignored areas of America are the untapped markets of tomorrow. He wants Congress to give tax incentives, tax credits and loan guarantees to people who invest there. But the president had barely left Appalachia this week when cynicism began to seep into conversations in Barbourville, Ky.

"I think the Clinton visit took people by surprise that he would come here, but I think now that it's over," said local historian Michael Mills, "there's more people saying now `What will be the result? Will anything really happen that's tangible because of his visit?"

No, according to critics of Clinton's poverty initiative. "You know how many times we've saved Appalachia?" asked Robert Rector, analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Some people move out.

Doug Besharov, scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said government money given to communities is sometimes spent unwisely. If it does improve people's status, they often pack up and move out, he said. "I would aim for a people strategy, not a place strategy," he said. Poverty experts agree, however, that many programs aimed at helping individuals have worked.

When Johnson declared a war on poverty in his 1964 State of the Union address, 19 percent of the population was living in poverty. By 1997 - the most recent data available - that number had fallen to 13.3 percent of the population.

That's one of every seven Americans. Social Security drastically reduced the poverty rate among the elderly. Still, the poverty rate for children remains near 20 percent, a bare improvement from Johnson's day.

Former Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver was Johnson's "Mr. Poverty." Many of the programs launched then remain today: Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start and Job Corps.

Their efforts, however, stalled during the Vietnam War. Confidence in the government's ability to solve social problems waned. By the time Ronald Reagan became president, many Americans agreed with him that the government had gotten too big and solutions should come from the private sector.

"President Reagan said the war on poverty was a failure," Shriver said in an interview. "It was not a great success, that's true, because we didn't have the money. I told Lyndon Johnson myself that we needed two or three times the money we had to overcome the problem."

Competing agendas

The problem has been the government's competing agendas, said Peter Dreier, a public-policy professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles. While money is spent to revitalize cities, the government built the federal highway system that made it possible for people and business to move out.

The Federal Housing Administration focused its mortgage loans on middle-class homeowners in the suburbs, he said. Tax policies lured shopping malls, manufacturing centers and industrial parks to suburbia.

"All the programs that have sought to bring business and jobs into the poor areas have been swimming against the tide of the federal government's other policies, which have encouraged an exodus of business and middle-class people from those areas," Dreier said.

That's the idea behind Clinton's poverty plan, Cuomo said. "If we can seduce the private sector with tax benefits the way we seduced them to the suburbs, if we can seduce them to these areas by infrastructure work, roads, houses etc. . . . then that's a legitimate role for government," Cuomo said.

Copyright 1999 Seattle Times Company