Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The War on Poverty +50

50 years ago today, in his first State of the Union Address, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared an "unconditional war on poverty." In poverty, Johnson recognized "a domestic enemy which threatens the strength of our nation and the welfare of our people." Unlike World War II, which was the model war for LBJ's generation, our more recent wars have been much more inconclusive. Such was certainly the case with the War on Poverty. In any case, here we are, 50 years later, and the big topic is - increasing inequality.

The statistics are familiar, depressingly so. In the past, the inequality and lack of mobility often associated with many "third world" countries were blamed (by both Marxists and free-marketers) on their lack of economic development, i.e., the pre-capitalist character of their economies. What, however, is one to make of inequality and lack of mobility in a country where capitalism reigns triumphant? For those on the "right," the answer seems to be even more capitalism, while those on the "left" seem finally to be rediscovering the issue.

Certainly it is refreshing to see the Left rediscover the issue of inequality. Once upon a time, social and economic justice was primarily what the Left purported to be about. In recent decades, however, liberal enthusiasm has increasingly focused on identity and lifestyle issues - issues somewhat more salient to privileged cultural elites than the concerns of those with whom such elites have less and less contact and with whom they share less and less of a common culture.

To be sure, the Rights's priority of tax cuts and other privileges for the rich, along with our diminished public commitment to education, the decline of private-sector unions, and (most telling of all) globalization and the consequent lack of opportunities to support oneself and a family through blue-collar jobs, all these are certainly serious contributors to our contemporary crisis. But so is the collapse of family and community life - thanks in large part, of course, to capitalism's "creative destruction," but thanks also to the social and cultural transformation associated with our contemporary progressive revolution in morals. The result is a society in which less than half of working class adults in their 30s and 40s are married. This growing social and cultural disconnection and dysfunction has especially impacted working class males. 

Thus, Notre Dame's Michael Jindra, writing for the Institute for Family Studies, argues: "early reliance on stimulating entertainment, lower educational attainment, disconnection from families and role models, and the attractions of different, 'edgy' subcultures - contribute to a widening gulf between those more connected to family, work, and society, and those without these commitments" ("Why Working-Class Men Are Falling Behind," IFS, January 2, 2014).

As right and left elites increasingly have less in common with the rest of society, right elites focus on libertarian policies that increase the wealth of those at the top, while left elites pursue a comparable libertarianism in the cultural and moral sphere. Both result in the weakening of the very social structures and institutions and relationships which support authentic communities.

Meanwhile the disparity increases between those at the very top of the American economic pyramid and everyone else - truly today's "domestic enemy which threatens the strength of our nation and the welfare of our people."

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