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The Not-So Great Society

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Mitt Romney revealed a lot about himself when he told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien, “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety-net there.” Weeks before he had asserted that those safety-net programs have “massive overhead” and that because of the cost of such bureaucracy “very little of the money that’s actually needed by those Mitt Romneythat really need help, those that can’t care for themselves, actually reaches them.” His claim is false. The fact is that more than 90% of the money allocated to safety-net programs reaches its beneficiaries. Romney’s statements demonstrate that he is oblivious to such socio-economic realities, but at least he brought up poverty and made it an issue. That is something that has not happened up since 1964.

Romney touts his business background and pontificates that he knows how to create jobs. That may sounds good to the Republican base, but Presidents of the United States have nothing to do with job creation. It is not in their Constitutional authority. Presidents do not legislate. They sign legislation into law or veto it. Furthermore, the United States is not a corporation. The last U.S. President who came to office from business was Herbert Hoover, whose administration ushered in the Great Depression, incredible job loss, and excruciating poverty.

Presidents do propose legislation to the Congress, as LBJ did with the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. That Act established the Office of Economic Opportunity to administer the local application of federal funds targeted against poverty. Modified over the years, the Act’s remaining programs include Head Start and the Job Corps. Johnson proposed that legislation in January of 1964, coerced and cajoled members of Congress to pass it, and signed it into law on August 20, 1964. It created jobs.

In declaring the War on Poverty, President Johnson sought “to help that one-fifth of allLBJ cajoles congressmen American families with incomes too small to even meet their basic needs.” LBJ called for “better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities to help more Americans, especially young Americans, escape from squalor and misery and unemployment rolls where other citizens help to carry them.”

The poverty rate is the percentage of Americans whose income is lower than the federally determined poverty line. It was 17.3% in 1965.

As LBJ put it to Congress, “Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.” The safety-net programs that Mr. Romney does not comprehend came from President Johnson’s Great Society initiative.

Romney, the other GOP candidates, and the Republican Congress gripe about and seek to change one of President Johnson’s greatest legislative achievements, Medicare. It helped to lower poverty rates for the elderly. So did President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Social Security program, which LBJ enhanced by advocating, pushing for, and signing legislation in 1965 and 1967. But the GOP seeks to repeal LBJ’s Great Society by claiming that its programs are bankrupting the country.

Romney ineloquently brought up poverty with his “very poor” statement, for which he drew massive criticism. He said he misspoke. That may be true, but it reveals an ignorance of the fact that more than 20 million Americans live in a household with income of less than half the federal poverty rate. According to census data for 2010, those “very poor” had an annual income below $11,057 for a family of four. That portion of the US population in the very poor category has almost doubled since 1975 and is the highest it has been in 35 years. Business people rely on data. At the least Romney could have read Business Week and appeared less clueless.

LBJ on front porch with poor childrenIn addition to those one in five Americans that Romney does not care about, the ones who had trouble putting food on the table last year, the unpleasant reality is that nearly
half of all U.S. households are struggling to cover basic expenses like electricity and medical care. Children are the least fortunate victims. As in LBJ’s time in the late ‘20s when he was a Texas school teacher, childhood poverty can have a lifelong effect on a person’s earning potential. The Brookings Institute and First Focus found that by the time children who fell into poverty during a recession grow up to be financially independent adults, their median income is about 30 percent less than that of adults who never experienced poverty as children. That is certainly bad for business.

The poverty issue is not who gets blamed. The issue is what choices do policy makers make to help expand economic activity. Romney and his cohorts are all about austerity, like defunding the safety-net programs for the very poor, the disabled, and seniors. The problem is that austerity in a recession makes things worse, not better. In Europe, which the GOP does not understand, harsh austerity policies have made unemployment soar. Cuts in government spending have failed to reduce budget deficits because tax receipts fell. Economic activity and employment levels collapsed. Poverty increased as spending decreased.

President John F. Kennedy said, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” As one of those few, Romney demonstratesPresident Johnson and Kennedy a profound paucity of the economic and social understanding that is requisite of Presidents. Despite the Republican pabulum to the contrary, this is still a country of great abundance that is slowly emerging from the Great Recession. However, the nation suffers from a rise of poverty that it can ill afford. All of the talk about the middle class ignores the plight of the “many who are poor.”

Poverty is bad for business and Romney should know it. His comments deserve derision because they are false, not because they are gaffes. He raised the poverty issue but has articulated no plan for addressing it, without which the country becomes the Not-So Great Society.

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About Tommy Mack

Tommy Mack began his career in broadcasting and is a US Army graduate of the Defense Information School. He worked in Army Public and Command Information and earned a BS in Liberal Studies from the State University of New York, Albany. A marketing communications executive, Tommy became a business management consultant for a major international consulting company and its affiliates before establishing Tommy Mack Organization, a business consulting practice specializing in organization and communications management. A professional writer and blogger, he writes about politics, business, and culture.
  • Igor

    3-Jim: do you have an argument to support “…they have utterly failed to achieve the results for which they were designed [for].”?

    Or are you just repeating rightist cant from the republican echo chamber?

    Why waste our time with cheap propaganda?

  • Jim

    Sorry, as a more objective observer I must say, you’ve missed the entire point. There is only one conclusion which the test of time has reached regarding the various Federally sponsored Safety-net programs, they have utterly failed to achieve the results for which they were designed for.

    Regardless of their ability to function, the data is clear, more people are poor now, old people still can’t afford to pay their health care. Further the administration and funding of these programs are also flawed and/or unsustainable.

    Its time to re-engineer government support for the ideal behind these failures, and to stop the demonizing those offer the political will to take on the task

  • John Lake

    The quotes from Johnson and Kennedy were certainly cogent to the issue. The modern politician, in a trend that expanded exponentially with the George W. Bush administration, is concerned primarily with corporate America. If the corporations prosper, America prospers. As that trend continues, and the population develops numbness toward it, we reach a point where social programs and the needs of the poor and uneducated are more a nuisance than a problem. Law firms these days are solidly conservative, and cherish links to conservative politicians. The rare exception is seen in the case of the young and noble law student who, nearing completion of his studies goes to work at low wage, in non-profits, to help those who suffer. In that regard, we have been fortunate to have a president like Obama. And when such as Obama is well schooled and prepared to meet world crises, we are well blessed.
    Johnson and Kennedy, shown in the words you quote, were on a middle course. At least the Republicans might strive for that. Johnson showed wisdom and insight and his words are well remembered.

  • jamminsue


    You say, The problem is that austerity in a recession makes things worse, not better” Which has been well documented many times over.

    Please keep writing!