Many, if not most, wars have failed to salvage victory from the inherent destruction war brings.
All wars leave collateral damage in their wake.
A big picture message offered in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is that the war on drugs, a key part of the larger era of mass incarceration, has devastated the lives and futures of African American males in ways that are nearly incomprehensible. That collateral damage, as well, has been disproportional—accentuated by the fact that AA and whites use illegal drugs in the same percentages but AA shoulder the burden of punishment.
The era of mass incarceration and the war on drugs are evidence of the nightmare of codifying behavior as illegal as a context for punishment. Is it possible that the legalizing of marijuana in Colorado represents a move away from the “war” approach to recreational drugs—a recognition, again, almost a century after the failure of prohibition?
Laws and wars, then, define the lines between combatants and the conditions of criminality; those lines and conditions, easily shifted, determine who matters, and who does not.
As the public discourse rises about the 50th anniversary on the war on poverty, we are being asked if the war on poverty worked and if we need a new war on poverty. These are the wrong questions, especially the latter.
In my work on ignoring poverty in the U.S., I raise the possibility that contemporary political strategies surrounding poverty include the paradox of constantly mentioning and highlighting poverty in order to ignore it. Over the past decades, “poverty” is repeatedly on the lips of political leaders and in the pronouncements of the mainstream and “new” media.
Yet, childhood poverty in the U.S. continues to rise, that childhood rate remains at the bottom of international comparisons, and the gap between the top 1% and everyone else in the U.S. grows.
Has the war on poverty worked? No.
But the problem with that one-word answer is that despite abundant evidence that some social programs do alleviate poverty (prompting many to say the war on poverty has worked as an argument for more and direct social intervention), the failure is that we have been conducting a war.
Ending poverty in the U.S. requires community, not war.
If we as a people genuinely wish to end poverty, genuinely believe in equity for every human regardless of her/his coincidences of birth, we must first set aside the war approach (as we must with the war on drugs and the era of mass incarceration).
That first step must then create a spirit of community that ends what truly was occurring during the war on poverty—a war on the people trapped in poverty.
Behind the political rhetoric of the war on poverty lies a cultural myth in the U.S. that individuals are to blame for their lot—that somehow those people with the least (and sometimes no) political capital are causing the exact forces that trap them.
A commitment to community over war acknowledges, as Kristof does, basic political facts:
The best example of how government antipoverty programs can succeed involves the elderly. In 1960, about 35 percent of older Americans were poor. In 2012, 9 percent were. That’s because senior citizens vote, so politicians listened to them and buttressed programs like Social Security and Medicare.
In contrast, children are voiceless, so they are the age group most likely to be poor today. That’s a practical and moral failure.
I don’t want anybody to be poor, but, if I have to choose, I’d say it’s more of a priority to help kids than seniors. In part, that’s because when kids are deprived of opportunities, the consequences can include a lifetime of educational failure, crime and underemployment.
The war on poverty fails as long as it remains a war, and not a moral imperative among a community of people.
Ending poverty must no longer be trivialized, then, as political expediency—the consequences of creating through state and federal policy a war on poverty. That approach can become only a running tally of manufactured winners and losers.
As we end the war on poverty as our primary approach, as we end the war on people trapped in poverty by no longer blaming them for their situations or for the broader facts of poverty and inequity, and as we commit instead to community and the moral imperative of ending poverty, we must also end the empty claim that schools primarily or alone can eradicate poverty—a jumbled message advocated within a larger commitment to “big business.”
As we confront 50 years of war waged on poverty, we must be sure to acknowledge the collateral damage—the stereotype of the welfare queen, that misrepresents people living in poverty but reflects the classism and racism tarnishing our democracy, shredding the fabric of human kindness and dignity.
As we confront 50 years of war waged on poverty, we must be sure to name and see the very real consequences of addressing poverty mainly as it impacts those with political, cultural, and economic capital; ending childhood poverty through direct social commitments, then, is an announcement that poverty and inequity are inexcusable in a free society, and not merely a partisan political talking point.
As we confront 50 years of war waged on poverty, we must admit that mass incarceration and accountability-based education reform contribute to and do not address the plight of poverty. An end to the punitive war on poverty must be joined with ending equally flawed approaches to punitive legal and educational policies.
As we confront 50 years of war waged on poverty, we must push aside the passive radical mask we use to honor a Martin Luther King Jr. facade allowing that war on poverty to exist; instead, we must champion the radical anti-war King, whose messages near the end of his life called for a direct end to poverty:
In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.
Up to recently we have proceeded from a premise that poverty is a consequence of multiple evils:
- lack of education restricting job opportunities;
- poor housing which stultified home life and suppressed initiative;
- fragile family relationships which distorted personality development.
The logic of this approach suggested that each of these causes be attacked one by one. Hence a housing program to transform living conditions, improved educational facilities to furnish tools for better job opportunities, and family counseling to create better personal adjustments were designed. In combination these measures were intended to remove the causes of poverty.
While none of these remedies in itself is unsound, all have a fatal disadvantage. The programs have never proceeded on a coordinated basis or at a similar rate of development.
- Housing measures have fluctuated at the whims of legislative bodies. They have been piecemeal and pygmy.
- Educational reforms have been even more sluggish and entangled in bureaucratic stalling and economy-dominated decisions.
- Family assistance stagnated in neglect and then suddenly was discovered to be the central issue on the basis of hasty and superficial studies.
At no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. As a consequence, fragmentary and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor.
In addition to the absence of coordination and sufficiency, the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.
I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income….
We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.
A war on poverty is an indirect and piecemeal approach to poverty. As King implored, we need a direct plan to end poverty, requiring a new commitment to community and an end to social policies as war.