DiBACCO: After 50 years of failure, have we learned nothing?

The War on Poverty’s five decades of ineffectiveness

Fifty years ago on Wednesday, President Lyndon B. Johnson, in his State of the Union address before Congress, announced that “this administration, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.” Mind you, this statement came four months before Johnson introduced his Great Society program that “asks not only how much, but how good; not only how to create wealth, but how to use it; not only how fast we are going, but where we are headed. It proposes as the first test for a nation: the quality of its people.”

If the language of the Great Society was murky and ill-defined, so, too, was Johnson’s view of the problem of poverty. “Lack of jobs and money,” he said, “is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities.” What Johnson should have said after having seen the 1950s, the most prosperous decade of the 20th century to that date, was: “Lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty. Rather, it is the failure to learn how to use jobs and money once we get them.”

To be sure, the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and similar legislation helped to level the playing field for Americans of different ethnic and gender groups in obtaining education and jobs, but in the half-century since the announced “war on poverty,” the percentage of Americans living below the income level the federal government thinks is sufficient is about the same as it was in 1964, no matter the increase in federal programs since then.

American history is insightful, but neglected by federal administrators dealing with poverty, then and now. Millions of indigent immigrants came to this country in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, often found discrimination, but somehow improved their lot without federal government programs. Their first backstop was the family (everybody of age worked and contributed to the kitty), then came the local ethnic community of which they were a part, and, finally, financial lessons learned from their families. Foremost in that education was the necessity to “underconsume” and “oversave” in order to get ahead. That meant, of course, discipline, keeping blinders on from the increasing advertisement-oriented society that urged buying based upon wants, not needs.

My Italian immigrant mother and father are a case in point. When my father became ill at an early age, my mother became the breadwinner for four children and my grandfather, all living in a tiny apartment over a produce store in Bellaire, Ohio. She not only worked six days a week as a seamstress at a department store in Wheeling, W.Va., she took in sewing for neighbors at night. Our diet was always the same: pasta or polenta and Italian bread laced with olive oil, cheap foods enhanced by green vegetables and, occasionally, meat. One day, just before I was about to enter school (I was the baby in the family), she announced: “Come on, Tommy, we’re going on a bus to buy a house in Shadyside [three miles away].” When we arrived at the house, tiny and newly built, my mother inspected it carefully, then told the builder we’d take it. She pulled the full amount of the purchase price in cash out of her bra, but was interrupted by the proper builder, who insisted that legal papers first had to be drawn up

This is a familiar story to first- and second-generation immigrants now in their middle-age and retirement years. It became a best-seller in 1996 when Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko, both academics, after surveying numerous families, wrote “The Millionaire Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of America’s Wealthy.” Not about the superrich, the book focuses on what might be dubbed the invisible millionaires; that is, those without the outward signs of money — fancy cars, big homes or fashion clothing. They marry and stay married, oversave (they’re “compulsive” savers), live below their means, overwork, skimp on or avoid vacations, and “could maintain their current lifestyle for years and years without earning even one month’s pay.”

That this message is not widespread to the poor or even the middle class is evident, not only by the emphasis on income, as opposed to spending and saving, but also by the high-tech gurus who increasingly rule our lives. For example, go to your spell-checker and type in “oversave” and “underconsume,” both of which are rejected as proper words.

Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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