The ‘war on poverty’ hasn’t failed

Rep. Charles B. Rangel | 1/9/2014, 12:55 p.m.
Charles Rangel

We launched a “war on poverty” 50 years ago; how are we doing today? President Lyndon B. Johnson’s call for an “unconditional war on poverty” signaled a renewed national commitment toward targeted policy, resulting in programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, Pell Grants, Social Security expansions and nutrition assistance, many of which were advanced by Harlem’s very own Adam Clayton Powell when he served as chairman of the Education and Labor Committee. Those investments, coupled with an economy that worked for everyone, are what helped us cut our poverty rate in the past, and they’re what we must continue.

At present, one-quarter to one-third of Americans—and even higher percentages of millennials and people of color—continue to experience direct economic hardship. Sixty-one percent of Americans say their family’s income is falling behind the cost of living, compared to just 8 percent who feel they are getting ahead and 29 percent who feel they are staying even. Twenty-five percent to 34 percent of Americans report serious problems, with their falling behind in rent, mortgage or utilities payments or being unable to buy enough food, afford necessary medical care or keep up with minimum credit card payments.

The war on poverty hasn’t failed; our economy has failed. The antipoverty programs put in place after the war on poverty work. In fact, a new study from Columbia shows that the poverty rate actually declined from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012 when you take our safety net programs into account. Yet Republicans have insisted on reckless cuts to these programs that are in place to help Americans meet their basic needs during difficult times.

Instead of protecting unfair tax loopholes for the very wealthy, we should get back to talking about investments that will get our economy back on track, create jobs and lift more Americans out of poverty. It is time to reset our entire fiscal conversation and talk about what we need to do now to invest in an economy that works for everyone, instead of one where only those at the very top benefit from its growth. 

When the Senate voted on Tuesday to begin consideration of a bipartisan three-month extension of unemployment insurance (S. 1845) on a vote of 60 to 37, Congress took a significant step toward reinstating the vital economic support for more than 1.3 million Americans who were cut off from emergency federal unemployment insurance during the holidays due to Republican obstruction.

Passage of this legislation is critical to helping our neighbors and friends who have worked hard and lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Over 127,100 in New York lost their benefits when the program expired on Dec. 28, 2013. Over 5,000 additional New Yorkers will lose their benefits every week in the first half of 2014. Failure to extend federal unemployment insurance will also hurt job growth locally and throughout the nation, costing the economy 240,000 jobs this year.

Since November, I have actively called upon leaders in both the House and the Senate to extend unemployment insurance benefits. House Republican leaders must allow a vote so Congress can extend this vital relief for our neighbors who need support. This lifeline is not only a moral imperative, but is also a smart fiscal policy that will allow our economy to keep growing.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel, the dean of New York’s congressional delegation, represents New York’s 13th Congressional District, which includes Harlem and extends to the Northwest Bronx.