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The war on poverty: 50 years later

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a "war on poverty" during his State of the Union address. This March, the 50th anniversary of that speech was recognized, with many people pointing to the gains made since Johnson's declaration, but acknowledging that there is work that still needs to be done.

In a statement about the war on poverty, President Obama noted the progress that has been made in the past 50 years, thanks in part to Social Security and Medicare. "Without Social Security, nearly half of seniors would be living in poverty," Obama said. "Before Medicare, only half of seniors had some form of health insurance." The President pointed out that "if we hadn't declared 'unconditional war on poverty in America,' millions more Americans would be living in poverty today."

The war on poverty should not be abandoned, Obama said. "Instead, we must redouble our efforts to make sure our economy works for every working American. It means helping our businesses create new jobs with stronger wages and benefits, expanding access to education and healthcare, rebuilding those communities on the outskirts of hope, and constructing new ladders of opportunity for our people to climb."

On March 5, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing on gains in senior income security since Johnson declared the war on poverty. "When we think of the poor, the elderly are not usually the first group to come to mind," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), chair of the committee. "In the popular image, retirees are free of worries about either their health or finances. And for some Americans, that is what retirement looks like. But in our country, there are growing disparities between the rich and the poor."

"All of our senior citizens who contributed to our economy across lifetimes of work deserve their golden years," Nelson said.

Social Security and Medicare provide an important safety net for seniors, Nelson added. "Medicare has made health insurance for those 65 and older universal and provides a buffer against catastrophic medical bills and expensive prescriptions. But while Medicare protects against catastrophic bills, the budgets of elderly households remain vulnerable to out-of-pocket medical expenses."

Tricia Neuman, a senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation and the director of the foundation's program on Medicare policy, said at the hearing that beneficiaries are subject to premiums and high cost-sharing requirements and incur costs for services that are not covered by Medicare, such as dental visits, eyeglasses, hearing aids, and long-term services and supports.

She also shared highlights from a video that the Kaiser Family Foundation released this month, "Old and Poor: America's Forgotten." The video illuminates the daily challenges facing seniors who live in poverty and the tradeoffs they face to make ends meet.

Trends in the labor market, public policy and family life mean that poverty among older Americans will continue to be a serious problem, said Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic security at the National Women's Law Center, in her testimony. "Pensions that provide lifetime income continue to disappear, and retirement savings plans are not filling the gap, especially for middle- and lower-income workers."

There are a number of steps that Congress can take to improve economic security for current and future retirees, Entmacher said, including protecting programs that lift seniors out of poverty and alleviate hardship. "Reject cuts to Social Security benefits, such as reductions to the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) that would hit the oldest beneficiaries," she said. "Don't shift more Medicare costs to seniors whose modest incomes are already strained by high healthcare expenses."

Entmacher called on Congress to improve Social Security. "Past Congresses can take credit for the reduction in elderly poverty that has occurred in the past 50 years. This Congress can secure and build on those gains by protecting and strengthening Social Security, [Supplemental Security Income], and other programs for vulnerable older Americans."
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) used the anniversary of the war on poverty to issue a 205-page report that many consider misleading. Ryan's report was roundly criticized by researchers cited in his report, who claimed he either misunderstood or misrepresented their work.

Sharon Parrott, the vice president for budget policy and economic opportunity at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, called the Ryan report "disappointing." "Though it purports to be a balanced, evidence-based review of the safety net, it falls far short of that standard," Parrott wrote in a commentary on the report. "It's replete with misleading and selective presentations of data and research, which it uses to portray the safety net in a negative light. It also omits key research and data that point in more positive directions."

"For several years now, Chairman Ryan has proposed annual budgets that would deeply cut programs for the poor," Parrott wrote. "The Ryan budgets have consistently secured between 60 and 67 percent of their budget cuts from programs for low- or moderate-income people. The true test of Chairman Ryan's forthcoming budget with regard to poverty will lie in whether it follows past practice and targets programs for less-fortunate Americans for the lion's share of its savings. Unfortunately, the new report may be, in part, an effort to lay a framework for severe cuts in low-income programs once again." [Adrienne Coles]

March 27, 2014