Tactical Error

Obama Misfires in the War on Poverty

The president lumped Social Security and Medicare into the rest of welfare state when he talks about how government can help people. That conflation is dangerous.


Last week, President Obama marked the Jubilee Year of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. The facts that a record 27.3 percent of Americans were receiving non-cash means-tested benefits, and that workforce participation had sunk to levels last seen during the Carter presidency seemed to be of little concern to Obama. Instead, he attempted to elide over the situation by declaring yet another “unconditional war on poverty in America,” and in an intellectual sleight of hand, pointed to Social Security and Medicare as evidence of Johnson’s success. Per the president, “Without Social Security, nearly half of seniors would be living in poverty. Today, fewer than one in seven do.”

Sadly, in his attempt to make all government programs equal and beneficiaries the same, Obama got sloppy with the facts, and worse, dismissive of working Americans. For the record, Social Security was FDR’s brainchild and has been around since 1935. It is not a Great Society legacy.

Furthermore, Obama forgot that he is the one calling for cuts to Social Security, over protests from Senate Democrats. As The Hill reports. “Obama proposed nearly $1 trillion in spending cuts in his budget, including a switch to using the Chained Consumer Price Index (CPI), which liberal policy experts estimate could cost seniors thousands of dollars in benefits over their lifetimes. “

Finally, Social Security and Medicare are the antithesis of food stamps and Medicaid. Unlike Medicaid and food stamps whose only criterion for eligibility is indigence, Social Security and Medicare are earned through a lifetime of work. Somehow, the notion that benefits must be earned may have been too much for the one-time community organizer.

As for the other part of the war on poverty, Obama was more circumspect. He didn’t talk about how nearly 60 percent of births born in New York City are to households receiving Medicaid.

Nor did the president comment on the decoupling of reproduction from marriage, and its relationship to poverty. In his speech, Obama even ignored the question previously posed by Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute about the recent New York Times profile of Dasani Coates, “Did Inequality Make Dasani Homeless?

Still, not everyone was as tight lipped about poverty on the lower rungs of ladder as Obama was. Leave it to Paul Krugman and Charles Blow of the New York Times to defend the Democrats’ Upstairs-Downstairs playbook, in which the middle class is at best an unfashionable afterthought.

On Friday, just as December’s glum jobs figures were being released, Krugman praised the Great Society, calling it a “template for a rising, increasingly confident progressive movement.” Krugman, however, did admit that the war on poverty may have had something to do with “broken families, crime and a culture of dependence, at least during the 1970s.”

Yet even Krugman’s concession was an exercise in truthiness. Things didn’t turn around until at least the 1990s. For the record, violent crime in New York City only began to drop in 1990, and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, a.k.a. welfare reform, was enacted in 1996 at the urging of Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress. Conveniently, Krugman ignored those facts.

As his contribution to the debate, Blow asked that taxpayers be more understanding of the societal transformation that is buffeting America, but which Blow neglected to mention also stands to lighten the wallets of a lot more than just the 1 Percent—at least if he has his way. In Blow’s words, “we must respect all family structures and encourage all parents to be active and engaged in child rearing regardless of living arrangements.” To his credit, Blow acknowledged that “in terms of having a child, two adults in a home can often do twice as much as one.” Oh.

These days Democrats seem eager to pay for dollops of dysfunction as long as crime stays low, while Republicans wish that they could turn the clock back. Upward mobility and reward for work seems to be an afterthought for all concerned.

In New York, Bill de Blasio demands higher taxes and more spending, but prays for safe streets. Having trounced Joe Lohta, his Republican rival and Rudy Giuliani’s deputy mayor, de Blasio tapped Bill Bratton (who had served as Giuliani’s police commissioner) to run the NYPD.

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Apparently, keeping the Upstairs-Downstairs Coalition viable requires law and order, lest taxpaying families flee to the suburbs. Or worse, see the high end of the partnership clamor for someone other than de Blasio for mayor. Whether de Blasio’s strategy pans out, and whether New York City sinks back into Bonfire of the Vanities mode is a real time experiment.

As for Republicans, much as they profess to hate Planned Parenthood and decry abortion, the teenage birth rate has now dropped for the last 20 years according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yes, government does have a limited but constructive role to play.

“Births to those aged 15-19” are at their “lowest in 65 years,” the CDC reports. To put this statistic in context, without this drop “there would have been an additional 3.6 million births to women aged 15-19 in the United States” between 1992 and 2011. What would the GOP being saying then?

Like it or not, demographics are destiny. With a smaller proportion of Americans in the overall workforce, and the dual and contradictory expectations of expansive personal autonomy and growing government giveaways as cardinal tenets of faith for the Democrats’ Coalition of the Ascendant, don’t expect social rancor to simmer down anytime soon.

Demands and resulting resentments are sure to grow, and don’t look to Obama to do anything to lower the heat. It would just be nice if he could internalize that not all government benefits are handouts or are equal. Working Americans deserve at least that.