Moderated by Rick Badie
Nelson Mandela said that poverty, like slavery and apartheid, was man-made and unnatural. Meanwhile, President Lyndon B. Johnson pledged a war 50 years ago to fight this nation’s poverty. Today, we offer three perspectives — two regional, and one national — on an issue that continues to endure.
War on Poverty still with us despite gains
By Bill Bolling
Anniversaries can be inspiring. They often give us reason to celebrate, look back or even look forward with new insight and wisdom. As the country looks back at the War on Poverty, we still are not of one mind.
President Ronald Reagan was the first to coin the phase, “We had a war with poverty, and poverty won.” It’s been repeated through the years, recently by a number of conservative politicians.
From some perspectives, this is true. We’ve spent trillions of dollars, yet poverty still exists. But gains have been made. We have succeeded in preventing the poverty rate from climbing far higher. We have hugely improved living conditions for low-income Americans. Infant mortality has dropped, college completion rates have soared, millions of women have entered the work force, and malnutrition has all but disappeared.
I have personally been a part of this war for 40 of those 50 years. But it never really felt like a war to me. There was never a feeling our county or local communities would use any means possible to win this war. I served four years in the armed forces, some of them in Vietnam. That war felt different. There was tenacity — a sense of duty that soldiers still experience when they go to war. We fought for our country.
Some wars have brought Americans closer together. Others have caused internal conflict. The War on Poverty has felt more conflicted. Instead of putting all our energy into fighting poverty, we’ve spent it arguing over facts, struggling with dysfunctional systems and fighting cynicism.
But I still hold hope. Fighting poverty has been a journey, rewarding for those who gave themselves to service, insightful for those who cared to learn about the systemic issues, transformational for those who were willing to overcome prejudices.
Often overlooked in our reflections is the creation of a “movement” in the private sector. There are tens of thousands of private, community-based organizations that didn’t exist 50 years ago. Public-private partnerships point the way to the future. There are millions of volunteers who feel a moral responsibility to help their neighbors in need and a great sense of satisfaction when they do. But they cannot solve this problem alone.
They stand as a foundation stone, a North Star for how we must fight this war together.
It will require that we take the long view, a willingness to invest in our collective future knowing there are few immediate rewards. I would suggest that we know what to do. What is still missing is the political will to act on what we know is true: In the richest country in the world, there is enough.
As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said so well: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” This country will never reach its potential unless we all get there together. It’s a moral imperative. It defines who we are as Americans and what we stand for.
Bill Bolling is founder and executive director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
Free market idea are best for society
By J.D. Van Brink
In 1958, my parents divorced when I was a few months old. The last time I saw my stepfather was in 1965, when the police took him away in handcuffs after he punched my mother in the face in front of my older brother and me.
Life was pretty tough, but I always believed that if I earned a good education and worked hard, I could accomplish whatever goals I set for myself. Why did I believe this? Because my family told me it was true, and my own experience validated their encouragement.
When Mary and I were married in 1983, we started out with more than $12,000 in student loans and had our daughter right away. However, we had each other, great educations and a determination to succeed that never faltered. Within six years, we were debt free and able to put a down payment on our first home.
Since the beginning of our republic, the American dream has inspired most citizens, domestic and imported, to think their best days were still ahead of them, and their children would be better off than they were. Poverty in the United States has always been both a relative and overwhelmingly temporary condition.
In the years since most of my great-grandparents were born, Americans have enjoyed the benefits of electricity, telephones, automobiles, radios, air conditioning, airplanes, television, programmable computers, nuclear energy, the Internet and the smartphone, among many other inventions.
Of course, it gives little comfort to today’s poor to point out that they live better than their ancestors did, or how people in other countries live. Saying so may sound callous if it is not put in the proper context.
Many public policy organizations, including the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute and Americans for Prosperity do an excellent job at providing this context, but it takes time to absorb this information, and we live in a sound bite-driven society. Americans tend to compare themselves to their contemporaries and dream how to improve their own lives.
Every year, a new crop of poor people, otherwise known as young people, strike out on their own and begin developing careers, starting their own families and accumulating wealth. The vast majority of them will not remain poor for very long. This was true when President Lyndon Johnson launched his War on Poverty 50 years ago. It is still true today.
Americans have prospered not because of the War on Poverty but in spite of it, especially considering its legacy of high divorce and illegitimacy rates.
The chronically poor, including the mentally and physically challenged, drug and alcohol abusers, the incarcerated, people who make bad decisions, and the unlucky need our help. But history teaches the best intentions of utopian central planners cannot match the results of individual liberty and free-market capitalism.
J.D. Van Brink is chairman of the Georgia Tea Party.
Work makes people happy
By Arthur Brooks
It’s the least wonderful time of the year.
One-fifth of Americans already have cheated on their New Year’s resolutions, according to a recent poll. Nearly half the country didn’t make it that far; 46 percent abandoned their resolutions before they started them. Research indicates only 8 percent of us will have kept our resolutions by year’s end.
There’s some good news. Social scientists finally have an answer to that age-old question: What really makes us happy? After accounting for genetics and the short-lived impact of recent events, it turns out only 12 percent of happiness is under our control. But if we focus on the right things, this 12 percent can have a profound impact.
Data show four basic values have the biggest influence on our happiness: faith, family, community and work. Studies consistently demonstrate that people of faith are consistently happier. Ditto for family life, which trumps loneliness. And try convincing someone that friendships and community involvement aren’t worth their time.
More than half of Americans report being “very” or “completely” satisfied with their work. Add the “fairly” satisfied, and that number increases to more than 80 percent. Meanwhile, unemployment proves disastrous for happiness. From laid-off workers to lottery winners, countless studies show people who lack vocations are dramatically less happy.
The secret to happiness through work is earned success. It is deeply satisfying to apply our skills and create value in our lives and those of others. No wonder Americans who feel successful in the workplace are twice as likely to say they’re happy overall.
Economic opportunity is critical. Opportunity is the gateway to a key source of human happiness.
In 1980, more than 20 percent of Americans in the bottom-income quintile could expect to break into the middle class within 10 years. Today, that number has fallen to 15 percent. Increasingly, Americans at the bottom are stuck at the bottom.
The solution to this opportunity crisis lies in the principles of free enterprise: individual liberty, equal opportunity, entrepreneurship and self-reliance. These pillars have lifted more than a billion people out of starvation-level poverty. As these principles erode, social and economic mobility shrink.
We need schools that put children’s civil rights ahead of adults’ job security. We need to encourage job creation for the most marginalized and declare war on barriers to entrepreneurship at all levels. Unfortunately, many economists believe free enterprise has slowly declined in America in recent decades, which explains the falling opportunity levels among the poor.
Earned success is the secret to happiness. Renewing our spirit of free enterprise will give every American an equal opportunity to pursue it. Fighting for free enterprise is a New Year’s resolution worth keeping.
Arthur Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute.