A homeless man panhandles for change in San Francisco.

In 1964, during his State of the Union address, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared an “unconditional War on Poverty.” That launched a number of social welfare programs, including the early education program Head Start and nutrition assistance programs for the poor. Fifty years later, we assess the war on poverty and where we are now.

The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later 8 January,2014forum

Sasha Abramsky, author of "The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives"

  • James Ivey

    If the war on poverty has failed, it’s only because poverty has some very powerful and ardent defenders.

    • Robert Thomas

      I don’t think those who argue for structural changes to address poverty in the U.S. can escape the effect undocumented persons and the role their honest labor plays in depressing income. You just can’t dismiss this, okay? Whether the effect is greater in one sector or another, it just can’t be escaped.

      No one who argues that this or that change will benefit our poorest neighbors will escape arguing this issue.

      When James Ivey mentions that poverty has powerful defenders, I’m sure he implies that these defenders succeed for a variety of reasons and with a variety of aims. But one of these is also surely the refusal to move forward with comprehensive immigration legislation.

      There is a powerful force that benefits from the precarious status of undocumented labor.

      • James Ivey

        It’s been shown time and time again that undocumented labor has only a very tiny effect on the overall economy. Overall, immigrants (documented and otherwise) pay much more in taxes than they receive in benefits. Between 1970 and 1994, immigrants paid $25 billion more in taxes than they received in benefits annually on average — $0.6 Trillion over that 24 year span. Michael Fix and Jeffrey S. Passel, “Balancing the Ledger on Jobs, Taxes”, LAT, 8/2/94, p. B7. See also Michael Fix and Jeffrey S. Passel, “Immigrants and Immigration: Setting the Record Straight” (Washington DC: The Urban Institute Press, 1994).

        So, undocumented labor is nothing more than a red herring. Poverty won’t magically disappear if we stop all undocumented labor.

        • Robert Thomas

          I agree entirely that the argument that undocumented workers constitute some sink hole for services for which they do not pay is nonsense. It doesn’t take much reflection to see that undocumented workers pay all kinds of taxes, including payroll taxes and through withheld income. On top of this, a disproportionate number are frightened from ever seeking or claiming any services at all.

          My argument is that a combination of desperation, social pressure (felt by workers obliged to return funds home to their families) and fear conspire to make the labor of undocumented people artificially low in cost. People who feel threatened with trouble will accept lower wages than people who act in the absence of those threats. This is just a fact.

          You can easily argue that this effect of wage depression is lesser or greater from place to place or sector to sector, but it is pervasive. It’s without question the reason that the status quo for undocumented persons is desired by many of the powerful supporters you cite. For them, a silent, docile, underpaid workforce is ideal.

          • TrainedHistorian

            But the solution to wage depression is is not the current absurd immigration non-reform proposal. Why? Because legalizing the undocumented just encourages more to come illegally and more employers to hire them under the table, which just further depresses wages. This is exactly what happened after 1986. 3 million undocumented were legalized, which caused millions more to come, betting that there would be another legalization down the road (which we have: it’s the current immigration non-reform proposal in Congress). And wages for those in the bottom half went nowhere, or even declined for many from 1986 till now, despite rising productivity. Why? Because low wages are not just caused by the fear of deportation as you wrongly imply but by the absolute level of labor supply for most jobs (Only a tiny fraction of highly specialized jobs are immune to such pressures because the skills needed for them are extremely expensive or beyond most people’s intellectual capabilities).. For labor supply does not just affect those who fear deportation..When too many citizens become lawyers and PhD’s relative to available jobs, JD’s and PhDs’ real wages go down too, even though they are highly educated, had to pay big bucks for their degrees, and do not fear deportation . It’s called supply and demand.. Lawyers know this quite well. Although immigration lawyers hypocritically pretend that the constant influx or low-skilled workers through mass legalization of the undocumented does not depress wages for low-skilled workers already here competing with them for jobs and rental housing, they themselves know better, This is why law schools limit admissions, especially once they see newly graduated JDs in massive debt and unable to get a position that pays enough to both live and pay off that debt.

            The only immigration policy that would alleviate poverty HERE is to enforce relatively strict limits on low and medium-skilled labor, as we did in the period 1945-75. This will lead to wages rising for those sectors.

            Alternatively, however, if you think that the US owes everyone in the world the right to legally immigrate here, what we need is to honestly say that is our policy: that we will no longer enforce any limits on immigration (except presumably against known felons and terrorists). This, however, will lead to greatly increased poverty for those already here with very little property, although increased living standards for capitalists and big landowners who will profit from the resulting dirt cheap wages and sky rocketing rents.

            But at least then we will not have any illusions that we could alleviate poverty through such inadequate means as welfare (income supports), just as one cannot alleviate poverty in South Asia or Africa simply with income supports (i.e. foreign aid). The best alleviator by far of poverty is high real wages. But these cannot coexist with essentially unlimited immigration of low and medium-skilled workers.

          • Robert Thomas

            Details of an actual immigration reform, whether such reform would represent an improvement on the status quo and whether they might, in the event, resemble any current proposal are speculative.

            My point is that the current situation, in which the labor of undocumented persons is inelastically available and in which management is confident of continued government inaction, on the one hand – and in which those who enjoy this abundance of labor while simultaneously agitating for an increased emphasis on the prosecution of a variety of threats intended to silence those who supply this labor, on the other hand – is nearly an ideal one for those who seek the guaranty of wage elasticity, the powerful commercial interests James Ivey invoked in his comment.

        • TrainedHistorian

          Studies using data from 1970-1994 is definitely outdated. We did not have much immigration at all, let alone the predominantly low-skilled immigration typical of the undocumented in the early and mid 70s. But even looking 1970-1994, it is certainly not true that all studies agreed that immigration levels, and especially illegal immigration levels were so harmless to workers already here. The Jordan Commission found that lower and medium skilled workers were being adversely affected by the high levels of low and medium skilled immigration,.The Science Foundation’s “The New Americans”similarly found that immigration levels in that period had negative impacts particularly on the least skilled, the poorest and the most recently immigrated.

  • Aaron

    The real war on poverty has been psychological, with the big media brainwashing the masses of largely untalented people into thinking they are going to become millionaires any day now because, the myth goes, we live in a meritocracy, thereby causing them to sympathize with the fat cats who run corporate America, who portray themselves as self-made despite being beneficiaries of corruption. The 1% and their corporate system prefer anything but a free market system or fair play or meritocracy as the corporations have formed in fact a cartel that also controls government. Representatives of that power structure like Obama will never really help the poor except in token ways.

    The establishment and its lackeys knows all about the 1%’s massive advantages, which is why for instance state-owned banks have been categorically opposed except in North Dakota.

  • Chomsky_P

    Many poor receive food stamps, medicaid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, etc., However, the official poverty line does not include these very programs intended to get people out of poverty. A recent paper by Meyer and Sullivan do include these programs, and adjust for cost of living as well, and arrive at much different conclusions than Sasha does. Their conclusion:

    “Despite repeated claims of a failed war on poverty, our results show
    that the combination of targeted economic policies and policies that
    support growth has had a significant impact on poverty. … Noticeable
    improvements have been made in the last decade; … We may not yet have won the
    war on poverty, but we are certainly winning.”

    How do you respond to this research Sasha?

    -Damian Park

    See: http://conversableeconomist.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-poverty-rate-income-and-consumption.html and the paper linked there

  • Bob Fry

    I cannot articulate this vague thought well…but it seems (to greatly oversimplify) that human nature expresses in either a generous or selfish manner. The slave traders who brought the first slaves over shortly after the Puritans arrived were selfish, and that selfish spirit has always seemed most expressed in the American south and conservatives.

    The selfish trait has always been with us, but became dominant under Reagan and is now at a peak with the Teabaggers (I will not dignify their hatred using their preferred name). Perhaps, and I hope, that finally the generous spirit is reviving in our nation and may become strong once again. We will all benefit, even the rich, if we can return to generosity.

    • Shadrak

      It seems you’ve articulated your “vague thought” very poorly. It’s as easy to declare stupidity and shallow thinking a trait of Californians and liberals as it is to claim selfishness a trait of southerners and conservatives. I can’t believe “selfishness” has increased or decreased in any appreciable way among any particular group at any point in our nation’s history. Selfishness is not the problem here, divisiveness is. Blaming the other guy does not solve any problem, other than salving your own inactive conscience.

  • Olivia

    I have a Master’s degree and my husband is a school teacher. I cannot find a teaching job. We have one car, we live in a dangerous neighborhood in San Francisco because we could just afford for to buy a house Below market . Our house is in foreclosure because we cannot make payments. Every day when I take my son to his school and walk on the streets, the atmosphere reminds me the poor third world neighborhood and worse: there are a lot of violence: gun shoots at night and depressed people taking drugs and raising children at the same time, but It’s hard to feel enjoyment when you wake up and think about all the payments that you have to make over your head and feel optimistic of the uncertain future.

  • Nicole Kidd

    Living in the Bay area, it’s the cult-like celebration of
    venture capitalism which rewards short-term thinking and leaves very little for
    the regular working stiffs. The author offered a venture capital firm buying a
    foundry, leading the entity into bankruptcy to avoid payment of much-deserved
    pensions. I’ve arrived here in 1987 from Germany, and I’ve quickly learned that
    pension promises are meaningless and are covertly repealed to reward investors.
    It’s capitalism at its worse!
    Now, I’m hopeful because renowned (and very vocal) VCs and next gen startups are embracing technology to democratize education (e.g. Udacity among others) so that those who don’t toil for tech companies can actually benefit from an education that could lead to an improved living standard. I think high-quality education (including teaching children/their parents how to live/eat healthily) starting in preschool thru college at affordable fare is key to lifting folks! Yes, yes, I can already hear the “socialism” cat calls….If socialism is about education for all, then call me a socialist. When we work together, all boats get lifted!!

    • Robert Thomas

      Washington State (due to the low cost of hydroelectric energy there) has long been the epicenter of U.S. aluminum processing, with many operators, large and small.

      I’m not sure which firm professor Abramsky was talking about, but the events he described fit the profile of private equity partners more than venture capitalist action. These kinds of businesses differ somewhat. The actors may indeed have self-described as venturers.

      Either way, please don’t imagine that the journalist-class fascination with venture capital is at all universally shared among those of us who actually do WORK to manipulate or direct the manipulation of simpler components into more complex configurations and assemble them into products and tools for the benefit of our customers.

      I’ve worked successfully as an engineer in Santa Clara County for thirty-five years and have just as successfully avoided ever speaking to a venture capitalist, or anyone else who practices “entrepremanurialism”. Neither have I ever worked with anyone who felt substantially more admiration for such people.

      • Nicole Kidd

        HI there, Robert, thank you for your reply. Greatly appreciated. Nicole

  • neilh

    How to prevent predator market practices. We know the rise of predatory gangs in urban neighborhoods isn’t good, but how to define markets that disincentive predatory practices. ?

  • William – SF

    What can one guy do to fix things?
    How to help change things?

  • Bruce Ferrell

    Mr Abramsky used a magic phrase… “hidden subsidy”. When irresponsible parents failed to support their children, we cross referenced that hidden subsidy back to the dead beat parent and charged the costs back to them. Why not charge the food stamps, the medical care etc back to the corporations that draw profits based on being able to “suggest” that their employees draw these benefits to make ends meet. We do have the social security identifier for all parties involved and we already cross reference w2 information provided by the corporations to the individuals. When we find an individual with one or more W2’s AND we find that individual are drawing public benefits, charge the costs, in aggregate, back to the corporations thus removing the incentive to push these costs onto society and protect the individuals from reprisals by their employers

    • Chomsky_P

      IF parents are responsible, then it makes sense to charge them. WHy do you assume that a restaurant is responsible for paying its workers too little? Workers are paid somewhat in relation to their skill level and the demand for their services. It is not nearly as simple to blame a corporation for the fact that its workers are not that productive.

      • I can’t remember the source, but I’m pretty sure modern American workers are more productive than previous times, while (adjusting for inflation) they make less than before.

        • geraldfnord

          I’ve seen a claim that workers today are on average ten to twenty times more productive than when Social Security went on-line—there being far fewer workers per recipent now wouldn’t matter, save that Social Security is funded by wages and salaries, which have not grown proportionately…almost as if the gains were being siphoned-off somewhere else…. Two facts _completely_ unrelated to that notion: our rich are proportionately much richer than back then, and vampires have enormous cultural currency.

      • Tricia

        Society subsidizes the employers who exploit their workers while executives take obscene pay. The workers are not paid in proportion to their contribution. And taxpayers are paying the execs when workers have to get food stamps and so on. Corporate subsidies are real and need to be exposed.

      • Bruce Ferrell

        I’d say a highly profitable corporation (think McDonalds with the employee help line that directed it’s employees in how to seek public assistance) IS irresponsible and IS knowingly profiting at public expense. These are the abuses I have in mind. Obviously, you view the mom and pop restaurant as more the norm. Please keep in mind, Walmart is the largest employer in the United States today and chooses not to share with the employees (who at one time were considered to be the backbone of a company).

        • Chomsky_P

          Why don’t you worry about increased labor costs driving up prices at walmart? They easily could pay all their workers additional $$, and if they didn’t raise prices, I suspect that they wouldn’t earn nearly as much profit (their current net profit is about 3.5 % of revenue – http://www.stock-analysis-on.net/NYSE/Company/Wal-Mart-Stores-Inc/Ratios/Profitability). No profit – problem for a publicly traded company.

          So they probably would have to raise prices, and they wouldn’t be nearly as successful – people go to walmart for the prices. It is not easy to be so successful – many others have tried, and failed (thinking KMart, and others). So if we assume that what walmart is doing is best for the company, then forcing higher wages on them might very well ruin their successful business model and turn them into another kmart.
          So why don’t you worry about this outcome?

          • Bruce Ferrell

            So… Let me see if I have this straight. The tax payer subsidizing a wildly profitable corporation without control or oversight (who does all they can to NOT pay taxes either) but the same tax payer openly subsidizing individual with conditions isn’t OK?

            And do keep in mind, we are talking about corporations that aren’t “just” getting by…. Yes, 3.5% on sales… 22% return on equity!

            The same measures for McDonalds show a net profit of 19% and a return on equity of 35%… Again, with a hidden subsidy by the tax payer!

            The first sounds like plain ol’ thievery and corruption to me. I guess some people find that acceptable. I’m not sure how, but from your comments it’s plain this is the case.

      • TrainedHistorian

        If people are not paid enough to survive, they have to make up the difference somehow (i.e. food stamps and other supports), unless you think people should just starve or freeze to death or be abuse (what often happens to people without housing) because their wages from work do not cover the cost of their housing and food (or in your parlance, because they are not “productive” enough to earn wages that cover their basic survival).

        The courts have already ruled that medical care (emergency rooms) cannot be denied because of inability to pay. When employers do not pay enough to cover such costs, those costs ARE passed on to everyone rather than to the employers of the ER user. Is that fair? Currently, many employers pocket the profits gained from paying workers less than the cost of living, increasing their own wealth, but they socialize the expenses of not paying their workers enough to survive on everyone. Is that fair?

  • Garrett Riegg

    I worked in 1969-1970 in the War on Poverty as a VISTA Volunteer in Birmingham, Alabama. The war was a waste of money. Only 20% of programs did any good. I now spend several days every month in a “poor ” area of West Oakland. The poor there are 80% students, artists and druggies who choose not to work more than a few hours. They cannot show up 3 days in a row on time for work. I pay them $10 to $20 per hour and many are really only worth $5 per hour because of lack of character. What we need is character education and incentives to work.;
    The poverty picture is exaggerated because many of these people live better than me–they smoke, drink, travel and party. They have 3 to 5 government subsidies ! They offer me food from food stamps they don’t need. They get 80% of rent paid by Section 8 or Catholic Charities. They throw away food from food banks. They sleep until noon. They need to grow up.
    How can you lose a pension.?? It is guaranteed, at least half, by the government: ERISA !! tHE speaker is only telling half the story.

    • persinho

      What Garret describes is an example of cultural failure (and a culture of failure) on a massive scale.
      Politics follows culture. Culture follows family.
      If we’re going to perpetually revisit the debates of the 1960s, we’d owe it to ourselves to seriously reconsider The Moynihan Report.
      The phenomenon Moynihan described, the breakdown of the two parent family and its correlation to poverty in the African-American community, is much worse now than in the 1960s.
      It now cuts more significantly than ever across racial and ethnic boundaries.


      The essence of science is verifying hypothesis by experimental evidence.
      The experimental evidence suggests rather convincingly that the remedies proposed by Mr. Abramsky are ineffectual at best.
      They also suggest that Moynihan was right.
      Fostering strong two-parent families is the best starting point for eliminating poverty.
      Public policy should proceed accordingly.
      The state is no substitute for parents.

    • Maya Bohnhoff

      We need all of the above. If all we offer are work programs that will take a small eternity to create in a coherent manner, given the current political climate, and do not offer aid in any other form, then by the time we’ve set up work programs the people who might have populated them will have died.

      This is not an either/or situation. Nor is it helpful to think of it as a war against an external force. The battle occurs within each of us when we decide what kind of people we will be, what is important for us to cultivate in the way of knowledge and virtues and what goals we set for ourselves.

      Poverty is not an enemy to be fought, but the symptom of a disease that must be cured. We sow the seeds of its metastasis when we fail to set the right goals (ones that will make us better human beings and better contributors to society) and fail to impart to our children a need to do the same thing. Our whole society needs to grow up and part of that growth is the realization that we are—as I suggested above—component parts of a larger organism. No organism can survive long if its component parts are in conflict.

      I’m sorry that in your tenure working with some poor, you saw no one deserving of your help, but I have to say that when you said they lived “better” than you did and followed it with “They smoke, drink, and party” I had to wonder about your definition of “living well”. I had a college friend whose family was exceptionally poor. He smoked and drank. I asked him one time why he didn’t spend what little money he had on food. “The amount of food I can buy with what I make in odd jobs means I’m hungry most of the time. Cigarettes and booze are far cheaper and make me less aware of how hungry I am.” This guy also had an abysmal sense of self-worth. His lack of motivation was, in great part, because he’d lived in poverty for so long he saw no point in working for $5 an hour.

      I was on foodstamps myself for a while in my early twenties. It was dispiriting and frustrating and didn’t end until I was able to get a job, first as a waitress, then at a local electronics firm. I’ve also lived on unemployment checks several times in my life; that’s no fun either and if I hadn’t had a spiritual foundation that kept me from attaching my identity and worth to the jobs I lost, I’d’ve probably behaved the way those kids you worked with did—smoking and drinking to stop the sick feeling of being worthless.

  • Belinda

    As long as businesses are judged by how much profit they make, businesses will try to find ways to keep their costs down. Costs include wages and worker benefits. Somehow, our society will need to find a way to judge business success by how well they treat their employees rather than how well they reward their investors. Of course investors deserve some recompense. However, as long as investor gains are valued more than worker gains and rights, workers, pensioners and unemployed people will lose ground to wealthier investors.

  • Tricia

    The irony is that those that purport to encourage “pulling up by your bootstraps”, and capitalistic values are actually actively squashing those that have motivation and want to excel. Active destruction of their chances!

  • persinho

    The guest sounded like someone out of a time machine from the 1960s.
    The solutions he advocates have been tried, with mixed results at best, for decades.
    When talking about poverty, someone should have the guts to mention the elephant in the room, illegitimacy. That’s where the war will be won or lost. Right now we’re losing.

    • That’s ridiculous, those gaming the system are a small minority, more an exception than anything. There are people homeless, freezing to death in the cold! They are definitely not winning any game!

      • persinho

        Who said anything about “gaming the system?”
        Are you responding to my comment?

    • TrainedHistorian

      Illegitimacy? There is and was plenty of dire poverty where illegitimacy is very low. Why because in such societies people (usually women and children) are (or were) forced to live with violent and abusive people (usually men alas), because illegitimacy is so stigmatized that women and children cannot/could not earn enough to survive without these abusers. Look at South Asia or Egypt. Very little illegitimacy there, but rock bottom living standards for the poor of both genders general, and many women, even in wealthier families, are treated like dirt. So a system that ruthlessly punishes illegitimate children and the women who have too little leverage to get men treat them or their children decently in the home, and pays them next to nothing outside that home has never solved poverty. In fact punishing illegitimate children and the women who produce them makes things much worse for them, as they are already the most vulnerable..Again just look at South Asia, vs. Scandinavia. Which has more “illegitimacy”? Which has more poverty?

      Poverty is only alleviated by high real wages The only countries that have such high real wages are those where the government has invested a lot in education for women, where overall fertility is low (about replacement level) and there is effective immigration control, i.e. contemporary NW Europe. Briefly the US almost became such a society from the period from 1945-75, but lost it because its politicians since the 1980s have pursued the fantasy that we can still have high real wages combined with massive immigration of low- and medium skilled workers into a labor market that no longer pays high wages for such work .

  • Kathryn Hopping

    Regarding the last caller I am continually struck by those who condemn the poor (which includes me) as gaming the system and being takers yet the biggest takers are the huge corporations. It seems the easiest thing to do is blame the poor and ignore the root causes of poverty ,which allows us to not solve the problem.

    • Aaron

      I like the Finnish solution or requiring work while “unemployed”. It takes as a given that people will game the system and offers a humane solution.

      When the rich game the system (they do so constantly) the effects are far worse.

      • Kathryn Hopping

        I see what you’re saying, but I’m betting that the Finnish also have universal health and DAYCARE. So although the idea is fine, in this country you have to be able to pay for both while you’re “working.” Unfortunately.

    • geraldfnord

      0.) Many people need to believe that the world were just, and so suffering ‘must’ be deserved—at least one group of G.I.s spent some time after liberating Buchenwald discussing what crime the inmates must have committed to warrant such ill-treatment.
      1.) Many people fear poverty—and who can blame them, even if their fear helps to perpetuate it?—and one way of diminishing that fear is to try to find ways in which they are so different to the poor that they feel that they can’t really be in danger of joining their ranks. Hatred is also really good for feeling as if you were in an order of person entirely different to that seemingly marked for suffering.

      2.) In primate dominance hierarchies, one way for those not at the top to do better is to `kiss up and kick down’. There’s always a chance of a good living telling those at the top that they deserve all they have and owe everyone else nothing. Comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted works…and is easier than the reverse.

      • Kathryn Hopping

        thanks, Gerald. Your comments are wise and insightful.

      • Carol Wright

        This is a very good way to put this. The sickening spectre of “poor” right wingers (meaning those in somewhat shaky financial position, where their current situation is shaky even if not really POOR poor YET)…. is really revolting to witness. They rhetoric is now sunk to this. Where SUFFERING = the “positive” motivation to go get yourself a job. Suffering is seen and touted as a good thing. What beasts.

  • Chomsky_P

    Sahsa is not an elitist for caring about the poor He is “smug” because his policy suggestions tell other people what to do as if he knows best. Sasha is so far wrapped up into his narrative that he doesn’t understand that caring for the poor and understanding the poor are much different than proposing policy solutions which have failed in the past.

    • Aaron

      Ever taken an IQ test? Smugness is not implied from his suggesting solutions to dire problems.

      • Chomsky_P

        It is if the solution is a minimum wage hike. THat implies that he knows what wages work better for a restaurant than the owner.

        • geraldfnord

          No, it implies that he has an opinion of what were decent, and if it prevails, that were a general judgement made by people in position to be reasonable.

          It is not élitist to suggest that a polity can make a reasoned decision better than individuals at the wall presented with {Prisoner’s Dilemna}-like options. People in extremis will often assent to bad bargains because they are weak, and others offer them because they are strong, and a good society steps in to take away the keys from these two intoxicated parties, saying (for example) ‘You damage the rest of us when you sell your daughter to a crib-joint, or rent your son for a breaker-boy at a cokery, or your own time for a pittance…and you the more so when you offer such a bargain to a person too scared to think straight.’

          We are all injured when anyone is treated as if their all-too-finite time were worthless, or worth less than some decent floor, or when their work damages their body or soul more than we strictly necessary. We are rich enough that we don’t have to tolerate such; we can provide for those who will not have jobs at all because we will not let them accept starvation wages or pay them, and should be proud therefor… proud of our wealth, of our decency, and of our wisdom in making the first be in service to the second.

    • It’s ridiculous to say he doesn’t understand the poor–or at least more than most. He’s spent years interviewing them. That is definitely worth something. Also those policy solutions have not failed, they have been blocked by the GOP at every point possible.

      • Chomsky_P

        I agree – he does understand the poor. And Republicans have supported numerous minimum wage increases in the past, as well as other programs. They have voted with democrats on minimum wages often (maybe not in 2013). But it is a false narrative to assume that the GOP is a boogeyman out to stifle help to the poor

        • It’s not just raising the minimum wage. What about unemployment benefits? Affordable health care? Accountability for corporate corruption? And the general disregard for issues of poverty in the American political discourse

          • Chomsky_P

            The GOP has voted with democrats to extend unemployment benefits frequently. Health care? Bush signed the prescription drug benefit plan, a huge drug subsidy to seniors, with many republicans of course. Both democrats and republicans have supported these programs.

            As for corporate corruption – who bailed out large failing banks and passed TARP? BOth repubs and dems. I still don’t understand your GOP boogeyman narrative.

            And I believe that some programs the republicans (very few of them actually) support, such as reducing or eliminating the minimum wage, will help lower skilled workers. If you don’t believe that, then you might conclude that they are the boogeyman out to harm poor. But that’s kind of thinking won’t provide you with any insight into why things are the way they are.

  • victoria s.

    What we are witnessing is the fallout from the absolute deadly sins of society, often practiced by the very folks that are in power and with way too much money… 1) Instituting policies without principles, 2) Acquiring obscene wealth at the expense of others; 3) Over indulgence without any conscious AT All!; 4) Knowledge without a bit of character; 5) Commerce and industry without morality etc., On and on and on… What we need are people with a deep understanding about what
    is going on with countless families out front; folks who actually care and more
    importantly with morals abound!

  • Lana

    Kudos to Mr. Abramsky for his passionate reply to the last caller — we need more advocates like him in this country! Thank you for a great hour!

  • Kim Alexander

    What an incredibly moving interview, one of the best Forum shows I’ve ever heard, thank you Michael Krasny and Sasha Abramsky.

  • marte48

    As soon as segregation was made illegal by the Johnson Admin’s civil rights legislation, housing prices started to rise to irrational levels by steady white flight into whiter and whiter neighborhoods. From 1964 to the collapse in 2008, the economy was fueled by the fear of sending white kids to school with black kids. Even blacks wanted to get away from each other. What is the percentage of black employment in Silicon Valley? Just because Apple and Amazon sell black entertainment does not mean that they employ blacks in any equitable proportion. Black men were for decades after the “WOP” denied jobs (except as soldiers) as reflected in cities like Oakland and Detroit. If the war on poverty did not work, it’s because half of the country did not want it to.

  • Richard

    How is the concept of poverty being operationalized? I hear most poverty policies (and surveys) framed in relatively simplistic terms of household income and expenses, usually with some computed baseline in dollar terms often not adjusted for local and regional circumstances. Have more sophisticated models been available? Could poverty be measured more usefully in terms of *quality of life* as determined by ready and reliable access to needs, such as:

    1) Access to nutritious and reliable food, from whatever sources (including self-grown, or cooperatively obtained), not just enough available income to purchase food;
    2) Access to safe, secure, reliable, and comfortable housing (even if not requiring rent, mortgage payments, or real-estate taxes because the housing might not be personally owned);
    3) Access to preventive, emergency, and necessary health care (both physical & mental);
    4) Access to education, K-16, without incurring debilitating debt that would lead to years of “indentured servitude”;
    5) Access to civic participation, i.e., the ability to participate in democratic governance at local, regional, state, and federal levels;
    6) Access to ready communication (for interpersonal interaction, both public and private).

    If living circumstances could provide the above without assuming individual and households having to *purchase* all of these, wouldn’t that lift individuals and households from *impoverished lives*?

    I think we too often conflate specific means with the actual needs or ends.

    Thanks for addressing this topic this morning.

    • geraldfnord

      Don’t forget the provision of effective, respectful, law enforcement. I wouldn’t be half so afraid of poverty did it not in our nation imply being the prey of criminals on the street and on the force, the first more imminent but the second less acceptable—we should do more for the police and expect them really to be public servants keeping the peace and allowing and abetting decent living, as opposed to an army of occupation keeping the wogs in line and battening on them.

      I knew plenty of illegal drugs-users in my old haunts—all white, though some of us only provisionally so (but the really white people wanted allies against the definitely-not-white, so we made the cut)—-and a few got caught, and none ended-up in prison or even the county lock-up, and they all had generally respectable lives thereafter, and the same went for dabblersin theft…and yet the police helped us feel safe enough to pay attention to making and leading lives…though admittedly it was rumoured that the Mafia kept the unorganised crime at bay, though that could have been their self-serving delusion and propaganda,…

  • Olivia

    I agree in dumping your child for hours in a child care is right.

  • SF2OAK

    Abramsky doesn’t consider himself elite because he talks to poor people. He is an elitist- he talks condescendingly to us because we don’t have his experience. In my experience most people are gaming the system which is why we want people to pee in cups for free money. It is FREE MONEY! I have people who insist on being paid in cash so it doesn’t mess up their benefits. I know folks who have income properties but live in subsidized housing. Any bureaucracy run from Washington has massive holes. The rich don’t need help, the poor get help and the middle class get screwed.

  • Maya Bohnhoff

    I’ve been trying to look at this from the point of view of those who believe that everyone has bootstraps and knows how to use them to climb out of poverty. It is a world view forged in the pioneering history of the country and stresses individual sovereignty. The logic is sometimes expressed as “I did okay, therefore everyone can do okay.”

    Looking at this from a slightly different angle, I began to wonder if the problem isn’t that these people are selfish and hard-hearted (at least not in the main), but rather, the opposite. If they accepted the reality of the situation revealed in Mr. Abramsky’s book and in survey after survey, it would break their hearts.

    Remember, the world view: everyone is independently capable and can martial the resources to get out of poverty, ergo, most poor are poor because they haven’t exercised that independence or sought those resources. This is a comforting ideology, obviously, and I have come to believe that many people hold it because the alternative is simply too painful to bear.

    Consider what happens to someone with a “libertarian” POV if they are forced to realize that most poor people are poor because of circumstance, not because they are lazy. They have no bootstraps by which to pull themselves up and no knowledge of how to acquire any. People like the fellow who emailed during the show are forced to come face to face with reality: “There are real people suffering horrible deprivation in this tech nation and there is nothing I, as an individual, can do to help them. I am powerless to do anything for them.”

    For someone who believed wholeheartedly in individual sovereignty, that would be a pretty horrific epiphany and I don’t wonder if libertarian and conservative thinkers prefer to believe it is simply not so.

    This is, I think, the difference between the “liberal” and “libertarian” world views: someone with a “liberal” bias takes for granted that we are not independent units all marching to our different drummers with all things being equal. Rather, we are interdependent, essential components of a larger organism and we have literally elected to create social, administrative, and political institutions that can carry out our collective will. We, therefore, see the government as being charged with the mandate and accorded the capacity to carry out that collective will and are willing to put our energy, thought, and financial resources into having public institutions and programs do the things that we as individuals accept we cannot do alone, or even in small interest groups.

    People who insist the poor (and unemployed) are lazy so and sos with big screen TVs who are gaming the system, or who have come up with some other angst-free way of thinking about poverty, are protecting their ideology which, in turn, is protecting their sanity.

    Now, the question is, how can these folks be encouraged to accept what is the inarguable reality—that we are interdependent, connected beings from the moment we draw breath until the moment we die? If that understanding can be reached, we may then work collectively as members of society to heal this disease we call poverty.

    The war on poverty, after all, is not a battle between individuals with some external force. It is a battle that takes place within each of us and that wounds all of us.

    • geraldfnord

      Excellent…that is to say that I have often thought the same: many wish to believe that others have no claimon their resources or sympathies do so because they would feel any such claim too keenly to bear.

      I would only add that they also may be ‘protesting too much’ against the notion that chance had any part in their current happy state, as to admit that obvious fact would be to admit that they did not entirely ‘build it’, and more so to have to contemplate that things might not have gone so well for them…I am aided in practising charity by noting how easily I might have wound-up poor…or might yet, I am not prey to the comforting, callousness-engendering, illusion that I am fundamentally different from anyone suffering.

  • Paul Hanstedt

    I thought this was one of the best conversations I’ve ever encountered in a news forum. It seems to me that until we redefine the metrics by which economic “success” is defined to include a diminishing number of people below the poverty line, we’re in big big big trouble.

  • Garrett Riegg

    I am sad and angry because I see 90% of subsidies for the poor going to people who are cheating by faking disability or working under the table; or they just can’t live with others in a normal family. I They want us to pay so they can be “independent” and have their own home. Our childhood poverty rate is high because they don’t count the father’s income and society and law allow men not to support their kids. So the government supports the kids and usually the commentators ignore the subsidies in calculating poverty ! It is a problem already badly solved in most cases..
    Sasha says the poor woman has hand-me down (used) stereos, TVs, bed, etc. So do I–from garage sales. The items still work fine. Does that make me poor? What’s wrong with being thrifty or re-using items?
    Many of my clients are “poor” so the bank allows them 2 years of no loan payments and then gives them a 2% interest rate. I pay 6.5% interest on my apartment house loan and lose money every year on some rentals due to rent control or the slow economy. When the government gives to the poor , it takes money from taxpayers who then have less to invest in businesses. Taxes encourage us to invest in non-productive government bonds or in non-productive items like gold or foreign stocks. That is why the economy has been slow to recover.
    the only way out of poverty is a job or marriage to a working person. Many paraplegics work a full time job; but if you hurt your knee or back as a nurse you get a lifetime SSI disability payments ! What would be wrong with working as a receptionist or secretary? WE reward disabilities. Look at the NYC cops who took $500,000 disability settlements while they flew helicopters and coached martial arts clubs. It is mostly politics and corruption.
    I had a secretary who took unemployment benefits every other year while she wrote a novel. I had clients who worked full time while getting welfare.

    • It is so true.

    • TrainedHistorian

      If you have secreterial job that pays a livable wage I’ll take it. Please leave a message for me via this website so I can get that job.

      What? You don’t really have such a job for me and the millions of other college educated Americans looking for such work but unable to get it?
      Fact is that millions of us can only find work that pays so little relative to expenses. that we cannot/could not survive without food stamps or MediCal or other income supports. I got a PhD in history, was unable to get any job, full or part time, that paid more than $13,000/year.(The highest paid job, at $13,000/year job, was offered by a private school: where the rich send their kids! Yes, they would not pay me enough that I could actually survive without food stamps, MediCal, etc).My retired parents refused to let me live with them, and would not fund any more education for me on the hopes that it might lead to better paid work. Having gone into debt just to fund an apparently worthless BA, MA and PhD, I was not going to gamble with taking on another college loan on the prayer and hope that it MIGHT lead to better paid work somewhere or somehow. Nothing is wrong with being a secretary at all. But many of us cannot get secreterial or any other work that would allow us to survive without taxpayer subsidies and your post shamefully ignores that reality.

      Saying one should get married simply to stay out of poverty was what caused so much trauma in the past through domestic violence and sexual abuse. Desperate women who could not get jobs that allowed survival because of legal discrimination against them in wages and positions, stayed with violent ment, and had to subject their children to violent and/or sexually abusive fathers,stepfathers and other household members. We should not have to return to those situations because a single parent is not paid enough to survive without having to live with the violent and abusive.

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