- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 13, 2005

In his 1964 State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty,” and he worked with Congress to enact the Economic Opportunity Act, which became law in August of that year. Creating or expanding programs such as VISTA, the Neighborhood Youth Corp, College Work Study and Head Start, the legislation was a “shock and awe” salvo against poverty and one of the crowning achievements of the 1960s’ liberal political agenda.

But despite best intentions and lofty rhetoric, 40 years later many believe that Johnson and his Democratic allies in Congress lost the war on poverty; yet their defeat was caused more by flawed ideology than illegitimate idealism. Last month, Pennsylvania Republican Rick Santorum and three of his Senate colleagues unveiled a new approach to help the poor, the Senate Republican Poverty Alleviation Agenda, legislation that deploys new weapons to win the war on poverty, while reviving its old idealism.

Taking a page from Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s Pentagon “whiz kids,” the ideology driving the 1960s’ war on poverty was a dose of “victimization” mixed with boundless optimism about rationally planned public policies ? both dubious assumptions. Then, liberal politicians uncritically believed the right mix of programs and policy could not only eliminate the underclass, but could also alter human nature. The problems of the poor, they argued, were caused more by insufficient programs than imperfect people. Underscoring this view, Myron Magnet wrote last August in the City Journal: “At the heart of the war on poverty was the utterly debilitating message that the worst-off were victims: that the larger society, ‘the system,’ rather than their own behavior, was to blame for their poverty, their crime, their failure.”

Today, critics believe the flawed methods and assumptions used to prosecute the war on poverty created a culture of dependency, not genuine opportunities for the poor. Still, the idealistic spirit and goals underlying the original war should be preserved.

The 12-point agenda championed by Mr. Santorum and his colleagues embraces the “ends” of the war on poverty but deploys different “means.” It “encourages an ownership society through personal asset building; helps private charities better serve the needs of the poor; recognizes the importance of faith-based charities in delivering social services; strengthens families by promoting healthy marriages and responsible fatherhood; and promotes work opportunity as the key to independence and a better life,” Mr. Santorum said.

Realistically, the Republican Poverty Alleviation Agenda is more a communications tool than a stand-alone bill. Congress may adopt parts of the agenda as separate measures later this year — including welfare reform authorization, the CARE Act, (which would boost charitable giving), the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, low-income housing assistance, prisoner re-entry/mentoring initiatives, marriage-penalty relief/child tax credit and charitable liability reform (which are among the major components of the multi-pronged legislation). But it would never debate the entire package as a whole. Nevertheless, it not only provides Republicans an opportunity to build rhetorical muscle about caring for the poor, but also a manifesto outlining better means to ameliorate poverty.

The original war on poverty firmly established Democratic dominance in the minds of most Americans as the political party with the rhetoric and reforms best able to assist the poor. Ceding this terrain, Republicans are often caricatured as caring more about country clubs than city slums. But that’s beginning to change.

President Bush moved Republicans in a new direction with his compassionate conservative agenda, which is underreported in the mainstream media and deserves more attention by Congress. As Mr. Bush noted in his speech at Notre Dame University in May 2001 about helping the poor, “The methods of the past may have been flawed, but the idealism of the past was not an illusion.”

The agenda proffered by Senate Republicans is an opportunity to build on this idealism and learn from the mistakes of the past. As the majority party, Republicans cannot neglect offering an alternative to the welfare state developed by the Democrats 40 years ago. It’s a political necessity for the party, but more importantly a moral imperative for the poor. Mr. Santorum and his colleagues deserve credit for recognizing the need to do both. While their idealism builds on a grand tradition, their methods represent new artillery in a war this country needs to win.

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