The last week we’ve been revisiting the War on Poverty launched by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. In fifty years, the poverty rate in the U.S. has been reduced from about 25 percent to 16 percent, but the discussion merely highlights how statistics are a matter of interpretation: Democrats supportive of federal policies aimed at reducing poverty tend to point to the numbers as a sign of success, while many Republicans point to the same numbers as proof of the policies’ failure.
That debate over how to fight a war on poverty is alive and well in Ohio, and it’s playing out at the state and federal level in policy debates over welfare, food stamps, unemployment insurance and, of course, health care.
Ohio’s Democratic U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown says Republicans have chipped away at the War on Poverty.
“When I see so many of my colleagues so vehemently opposed to the minimum wage and so recalcitrant in their willingness to extend unemployment benefits, and this mission in the House…to cut $40 billion from food stamps, it’s hard to think that this War on Poverty is being fought now,” said Brown in a phone interview with WYSO. “We’ve gotta do better than this.”
Looking back at fifty years of the War on Poverty, Ohio’s Republican Senator Rob Portman calls for reform, rather than expansion of aid.
“I think part of what happened frankly is that while some of those initial programs were very important and continue to be,” he said, “they haven’t been reformed and updated to deal with today’s problems.”
Last week Sen. Portman broke ranks with other Republicans in the Senate by voting to move ahead with a Democratic proposal to extend emergency unemployment benefits, which expired at the end of December. This week, the Senate is expected to consider a variety of proposals for how to pay for the extension, a condition set by House Republicans, but Portman has already parted ways with Democrats over the question after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declined to take up Portman’s cost-saving proposals.
Meanwhile, the House and Senate agriculture committees are working towards a long-delayed compromise on the Farm Bill, a once-non-controversial bill that funds both farm subsidies and nutrition assistance, also known as food stamps. Republicans have been demanding $40 billion in cuts to food stamps, while Democrats have stood their ground with just $4 billion in proposed cost-cutting in the Senate version of the bill. Late last week, the Washington Post reported a rumored compromise that would cut the program by $9 billion over ten years without reducing eligibility or kicking anyone off.
At the heart of these debates is the question of whether and how the federal government should work to fight poverty and support families and individuals who are unemployed or struggling to make ends meet in low-wage jobs. President Barack Obama has already staked out poverty—and with it, the issue of raising the federal minimum wage—as a major talking point for 2014. As job growth stagnates, the matter of whose responsibility it is to support those left behind (and what exactly “support” should look like) is likely to be at the center of partisan squabbling for months and years to come.