Skip to main content
david shribman

Suddenly big questions are being asked in big ways in Washington.

Perhaps it was prompted by the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. Maybe it was propelled by a flood of scholarly reports examining the broadening gap between rich and poor in the United States. Perhaps it was the return to American airwaves of Downton Abbey, which fairly screams themes of class consciousness and class conflict. Or maybe it was the capital debate over extension of unemployment benefits.

Whatever the reason, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, academics and political professionals and – critically – the president and the House speaker are all examining anew two classic questions:

What, if anything, is the government's responsibility in assuring economic mobility and in closing the yawning space between those living lavishly and those living on the margins of society? And, just as important, does government intervention in society and in the culture actually make much of a difference?

The latter is a yeasty question, much debated in the senior seminar rooms of America's universities as well as in the committee chambers on Capitol Hill, and both sides of the question employ the War on Poverty as a cudgel in the conversation.

On the left, Johnson's War on Poverty is remembered fondly as the high tide of hopes that Washington might intervene to soothe the pains of poverty and, more than that, to lift the poor permanently into prosperity. The War on Poverty, whose half-century anniversary is this month, is also remembered as the precursor to Johnson's ambitious Great Society, which made Washington an aggressive participant in nearly every social, educational, health and welfare issue in nearly every community in the United States.

The Great Society was a New Deal inspiration fortified with New Testament values: Help the poor. Heal the sick. Assist the aged. Boost the striving. But on the right, more congenial to the New Testament than to the New Deal, the Great Society and its opening act, the War on Poverty, are symbols of government good intentions producing economic and social wreckage. (Another 50th anniversary marked in January, that of Washington's 1964 assault on cigarette smoking, provides a counter example of government interference, one that cut into the rate of cancer-causing smoking.)

The left argues that the War on Poverty and other, associated programs at the very least did not allow even more Americans to pour into penury and hopelessness. The right argues that LBJ programs spent $20-trillion to almost no effect on family structure and other root causes of poverty, though with some fair-minded credit to Johnson and his dream. ("The overwhelming majority of poor Americans are not undernourished and did not suffer from hunger for even one day of the previous year," Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote in The Wall Street Journal.)

This debate rages on, and will continue to do so. But the focus this month has been on the unemployed, and on the question of whether the country can afford to extend benefits – and whether expenditures on direct job creation, or on more market-oriented approaches, might be more valuable and, to cite the problems dating from 1964, more long-lasting than merely handing out more jobless benefits.

President Barack Obama, of course, would be happy to do both, but his focus early in the month was on those currently unemployed, and he assembled a clutch of them in the White House last week to underline their plight and to press what has become a familiar part of the President's rhetoric, "to do more to make sure that all Americans share in [economic] growth." The Republicans, meanwhile, argued that extending unemployment benefits depended on more meaningful measures, which is to say efforts that create jobs with permanent employment prospects.

Still, the growing prosperity gap is a growing issue in the United States. Late last year, the University of California (Berkeley) economist Emmanuel Saez found that incomes at the top 1 per cent of the United States economy grew by 31.4 per cent between 2009 and 2012, while incomes for the bottom 99 per cent grew by only 0.4 per cent, which means that the top one per cent reaped 95 per cent of the growth in American incomes.

A principal axis of the debate over the income gap and broader economic issues is on the question of whether the government or independent financial markets are the best tool to provide opportunity and to foster job growth. Republicans almost universally put greater weight on the market, and modern Democrats, chastened by memories of their years in the wilderness from 1969 to 1993 (with the exception of the four-year Carter interregnum in 1977-1981 that in many ways felt more Republican than Democratic) tend to favor a bit of each while retaining the conviction that a government role is indispensable.

None of these debates was concluded in recent days. But the important thing is that they have started in a fresh way. The principals may be talking past each other, but at least they are talking.