In the middle of a needless controversy over whether Republicans will agree to extend long-term unemployment benefits, The New York Times and USA Today and other outlets have published numerous pieces about what Lyndon Johnson, fifty years ago, called the “War on Poverty.”
Naturally, conservatives, who tend to prefer real wars over metaphorical ones, believe Johnson’s war has been a failure. I saw an outrageous segment just this morning on Fox during which the host—the fair and balanced host—essentially attacked nearly every anti-poverty program in existence while the guest, Fox-infected Democrat Bob Beckel, agreed with her way too often.
All of my adult life, including when I was a Rush Limbaugh Republican, I have heard how liberals’ attempts to make life a little better for the impoverished, to help lift them out of their poverty, have been a colossal failure. That narrative, that “the war on poverty is a failure” narrative, has been a constant thorn in my side, for reasons that will become clear. But there was something in the demagogic and irritatingly opportunistic video released this past weekend by Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio (“After 50 years isn’t it time to declare big government’s war on poverty a failure?”) that compelled me to speak out, in my own little way, against what can only be called a cynical and mean-spirited attempt to gain political points with a Tea Party constituency that apparently knows no shame.
Thus, I will tell you a story about at least one victory in the long war on poverty. It’s a true story. I know it’s a true story because I was there.
Sometime in February of 1975, I found out my girlfriend was pregnant. I was 16 at the time; she was barely 16. When I say 16, yes, I mean 16 years old. We were juniors in high school in a small town in southeast Kansas. If you remember what you were like as a junior in high school, then you know how ridiculous it is to imagine that two high school juniors should bring a child into the world, much less take care of it. My brother-in-law at the time suggested the possibility of an abortion. But abortion was the furthest thing from our young minds. We saw the whole thing as simply the natural result of our admittedly adolescent love for each other, even if that love was destined to deteriorate, before ending in divorce some fifteen years later.
Needless to say, our respective families weren’t exactly thrilled about the prospect of two teenagers from two lower-working-class homes trying to raise a child on their own. And neither of the families were in a position to help all that much, although they did what they could. Along with her two sisters, my girlfriend lived with her divorced mom, who worked as a secretary at a factory that made bib overalls. My dad, born in 1909, was on Social Security. My mom had undergone extensive back surgery by then and was unable to work full time, and she was much too young to receive Social Security benefits herself. My youngest sister was still living at home, since she was all of 10 years old.
Such was the stage on which a very adult drama played out for this new teenager-dominated family.
On that stage, part of that drama, was the federal government. I remind you that this was 1975, just before the age of Republican “government is the problem” demagoguery and stinginess. It was before Democrat Bill Clinton validated much of that demagoguery and stinginess by signing in 1996 a welfare reform bill that was dreamed up by radical “Contract with America” Republicans led by Newt Gingrich. For a time our new family—we were married in March of that year—received a small monthly check, as well as food stamps, the kind that came in the form of currency-looking coupons. The kind that everyone in line behind you at the grocery store knew to be government-issue. The kind that made you more than a little embarrassed to pull out and hand to the cashier, which is why my then-wife was the one who had to use them, since I didn’t have the social courage to do so.
In October of 1975 a little girl was born. And, partly thanks to the generosity of the American people, as expressed through legislation that both political parties at one time supported, she grew up healthy. And loved. She grew up to be an educator, an educator with a Master’s degree, and she teaches literature to high school kids, kids about the same age as her parents were when she was conceived. She’s a remarkable person. And she has a remarkable kid of her own. My granddaughter.
Less than a year after my daughter was born, her teenage mom went to work at a nursing home, making somewhere around $2.30 an hour, where her small frame was required to lift in and out of bed heavy senior citizens who couldn’t get in and out of bed by themselves. She hurt herself doing so, and although I can’t be sure, I believe the toll that work took on her afflicts her in some way to this day.
I continued school and worked during the summer for the local municipality, then later the county, courtesy of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a 1973 anti-poverty program that was signed into law, believe it or not, by a Republican president, after being co-sponsored by both a Democratic and a Republican senator. That bill passed the Senate 88-5. It passed the House 369-31. Imagine that kind of overwhelming bipartisan agreement today on an anti-poverty bill. And imagine a Republican president saying, as President Nixon said, that “it is one of the finest pieces of legislation to come to my desk this year.”
In any case, the teenage mother in this story, who had the relative courage to stand in line with those stigmatizing food coupons in hand in order to buy food for her daughter and cowardly teenage husband, eventually earned a Master’s degree herself. The cowardly husband eventually spent 30 years in the Postal Service and, now retired, blogs as a labor of love.
And somewhere, somewhere in this great and generous country, there are politicians like Marco Rubio who are cynically conspiring to make the realization of a decent life a lot harder, perhaps impossible, for not just careless teenagers who find themselves in the situation I described above, but for others who find themselves in situations that require the community, as expressed through our we-the-people government, to extend a collective hand to those who need it.
People will continue arguing, of course, about the larger success or failure of the War on Poverty. Economist Jared Bernstein made what seems to me to be an unassailable case for its success, but that won’t stop the debate. Yet apart from economists defending its merits, or apart from right-wing pundits pronouncing the whole thing a failure, I can testify that for one small family in one small town in Kansas, that metaphorical war helped a couple of teenage parents and their daughter through some difficult times and helped make them productive and tax-paying citizens. Leaving aside the mere humanity of it, that government investment made in a couple of high school juniors in 1975 actually paid off financially.
And I suspect similar and even more dramatic testimony could be given by many more Americans, many more than Tea Party Republicans and conservatives would care to contemplate.