Just as the federal government's 21st century war on the poor is hitting its stride, the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty has come along to complicate the trajectory. LBJ recognized that America's legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and racism, had destroyed any hopes of a level playing field for Americans of color. He also knew that Americans of any race who had come from generations of poverty needed more than to be simply told to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. So he launched an ambitious set of programs that aimed to give financial and moral support to poor Americans. Some have been successful. Some were poorly organized or poorly administered. Johnson's folly in Vietnam then drained away the very resources that he would have used to fully implement his ambitious "war."
Over the ensuing years, America's business leaders started to amass ever larger percentages of profits for themselves. They made good use of the extra wealth to influence Congress and to make sure that their business and personal interests were being served. Recent tax rates for American's wealthiest are at the lowest levels since the Great Depression. At the same time, unions have been declining in strength and in numbers. And the American narrative of choice has changed as well. We don't care about the Norman Rockwellian worker who puts in his honest day's work for an honest day's pay any more. The new story is about the ultra rich tycoon or celebrity and how we all could be one if we were lucky enough.
Now, the millionaire majority in the U.S. Congress has turned Johnson's concerns upside down and fights tooth and nail to protect the accumulated wealth of the 1 percent. They lecture struggling Americans to not get too uppity with pie-in-the-sky ideas about a $12-per-hour minimum wage because they can no longer begin to understand what the life of a lower class American looks and feels like. They are about to pass a Farm Bill that will cut billions more from the food stamp program as an extra kick to those who are now cut off from long term unemployment benefits.
To his credit, President Obama at least has been addressing inequality in our nation. His State of the Union address outlined a few small steps that he will take with executive orders, but the very tenor of his conversation betrays his lack of commitment or understanding. He believes that we have to beg the rich to share their wealth. We have to cajole companies to please pay their workers a little more. We can't possibly try to take back some of the wealth that has been hosed out of our system through both legal (lobbying) and illegal corruption. He has given up the talk and the fight to tax the richest at a higher rate. He will instead continue to hob-knob with them and treat them with the deference they expect as the privileged class. He believes that investors will save the day as they flock back to America with their money. He forgets that those same dollars have recently been in the process of saving the day in emerging capital markets, buoying growth and creating jobs in developing countries. But because these investors care about profits and not jobs, they are already dropping their interest and investments in these developing countries now that interest rates may start to rise in the safer investment climate of America. And if they see an opportunity to make money somewhere else, with better returns, they will leave just as quickly. Jobs growth and loss is collateral benefit or damage from their investment practices. It is folly to depend upon the goodwill of investors to create an equitable society.
Obama's modest effort to reduce inequality will be doomed by the juggernaut of business interests that will spend heavily in Congress to preserve the status quo unless he gets serious about going after the greed and insular pomposity that has beset the upper crust.
To live successfully in today's economy, poor people need more money. When the housing crisis brought the financial industry to a crash, the government pumped billions into the banks who then hoarded it instead of lending it out as the government had hoped. If the money had gone directly to the people who couldn't pay their mortgages, they would have kept their houses and avoided the related calamities that come from losing a house, the banks would have gotten their money in spite of their bad judgement in making the loan in the first place and the bailout billions would have been spent to prime the economy instead of being hoarded.
Begging the rich to toss us some crumbs only belittles us as a people. The government has already filled the lackey job position, let them do the begging. We need to stand up for ourselves and regain what has been taken by the power elite. They can only browbeat us if we allow them. Let's start by restoring pride in ourselves and in the value of an honest day's work. The arrogance of a rich man is only another sign of a fool impoverished by money. We can do better.
Dan DeWalt writes from Newfane.