Congressional Black Caucusby Representative Barbara Lee
Posted on 2014-01-08
LEE of California. Mr. Speaker, I rise today with many Members to
mark President Lyndon Baines Johnson's 1964 State of the Union Address.
Let me first take a moment to thank Leader Pelosi; our whip, Steny Hoyer; and the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, for their tremendous leadership in leading our agenda for economic justice and for jobs.
This is truly a historic day in our fight to provide every American with a pathway out of poverty. This morning, we were joined here at the Capitol by Linda Johnson Robb, President Lyndon Baines Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson's eldest daughter, to mark the 50th anniversary of her father's State of the Union speech in which he declared an unconditional war on poverty. At the time of his speech, the Nation's supplemental poverty rate was approximately 26 percent; 36 percent of low-income households struggled with food insecurity; and more than a third of American seniors were living in poverty.
And let me tell you, President Johnson got it. He recognized in his speech that poverty is a national problem requiring national organization and support. He knew that in a great society it is absolutely essential that we prioritize investments that lift millions out of poverty. As a result of his vision, his daughter reminded us this morning of the bipartisan and bicameral effort that followed, benchmark antipoverty legislation passed during the Johnson administration, including--and I want to remind everyone of these major initiatives that have significantly changed the lives of millions of Americans--the Civil Rights Act, the Urban Mass Transportation Act, the Criminal Justice Act, the Food Stamp Act, the Older Americans Act, Social Security amendments, the Voting Rights Act, the Housing and Urban Development Act, the Public Works and Economic Development Act, the Department of Housing and Urban Development Act, the Amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Higher Education Act, the Child Nutrition Act, the Child Protection Act, and the National School Lunch Act, in addition to Head Start, Job Corps, of course food stamps, now known as SNAP, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.
The result of these policies and programs are undeniable. The poverty rate was cut nearly in half by the mid-1970s. They even had a personal impact on many of us here, a personal impact on me, providing a critical bridge over troubled waters when I was a single mother in the seventies, trying to raise two boys and go to college. And I am forever grateful to the American people for being there for me when I needed them.
And we know that today, 50 years later, these critical antipoverty programs continue to provide that support for vulnerable Americans and people living on the edge. Today, the Nation's supplemental poverty rate is now 16 percent, well below what it was in 1964. The programs put in place after the war on poverty, they work. They create economic security, return people to their dignity, and provide opportunities for Americans to lift themselves out of poverty.
According to a report released by the Center for American Progress yesterday, without the safety net initiated as a part of the war on poverty, ``poverty rates today would be nearly double what they currently are.'' And I will now insert that report into the Record.
[From americanprogress.org, Jan. 7, 2014] Key Findings From Our New National Poll 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 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. While these numbers have somewhat retreated over the last five years, they are still shockingly high, and the disparities across demographic groups underscore how uneven the current recovery has been.
A majority of Americans have a direct personal connection to poverty. Fifty-four percent of Americans say that someone in their immediate or extended families is poor, a figure that has actually increased 2 points [[Page H47]] since we conducted our first poll in. Nearly two in three African Americans (65 percent) report a direct connection to poverty, while 59 percent of Hispanics say the same.
Americans vastly overestimate the annual income necessary to be officially considered poor. Perhaps expressing a more realistic understanding of the economy than official government measures currently capture, Americans on average estimate that it takes just over $30,000 in annual income for a family of four to be considered officially in poverty-- about $7,000 more than the government's poverty line. Most respondents in the focus groups were shocked to hear that the official poverty line was as low as it is; many suggested that it represents a disconnect with the reality of rising prices over the last few years. Americans on average also report that it would take more than $55,000 in annual income to be considered out of poverty and safely in the middle class.
Americans now believe that nearly 40 percent of their fellow citizens are living in poverty. When we conducted our 2008 poll, 13.2 percent of Americans were living below the federal poverty line, but our survey found that Americans guessed the number to be 29 percent. Today, with unemployment at pre-financial crisis levels and a recovery ostensibly underway for several years, government statistics tell us that 15 percent of Americans live below the poverty level. The public, however, believes that number is now 39 percent-- a stunning 10-point increase that flies in the face of economic indicators such as the unemployment rate, consumer confidence, the financial markets, and gross domestic product, or GDP.
Americans strongly believe that poverty is primarily the result of a failed economy rather than the result of personal decisions and lack of effort. In a forced choice test of ideas, nearly two in three Americans (64 percent) agree more with a structural argument about the causes of poverty-- ``Most people who live in poverty are poor because their jobs don't pay enough, they lack good health care and education, and things cost too much for them to save and get ahead,'' underscoring the current economy's failings in the areas of wages, health care, education, and cost of living. In contrast, only 25 percent of Americans agree more with a personal cause--``Most people who live in poverty are poor because they make bad decisions or act irresponsibly in their own lives.'' Even white conservatives and libertarians prefer the structural vision of a failed economy over personal reasons for poverty by a wide margin (63 percent to 29 percent).
Retrospective evaluations of the ``war on poverty'' are mixed, but Americans across ideological and partisan lines believe the government has a responsibility to use its resources to fight poverty. Americans do not generally have a favorable impression of the term ``the war on poverty'' without additional context about the programs and goals associated with the larger project. But after introducing information to describe the war on poverty and its impact, an overwhelming percentage of Americans--86 percent--agrees that the government has a responsibility to use some of its resources to combat poverty. Moreover, a majority (61 percent) feels that the war on poverty has made a difference, albeit not a major difference, in achieving its goals (41 percent say war on poverty has made a ``minor difference''; 20 percent say it has made a ``major difference''). Retrospective evaluations of the war on poverty, however, are heavily divided by ideology, partisanship, and race. Nearly 7 in 10 (69 percent) white liberals and progressives believe the war on poverty has worked, and more than 6 in 10 (64 percent) white conservatives and libertarians believe the opposite.
Despite mixed feelings about the original war on poverty, there is strong support for a more realistic goal of reducing poverty by half over the next 10 years. Asked whether they would support or oppose ``the President and Congress setting a national goal to cut poverty in the United States in half within ten years,'' 7 in 10 Americans said they would support such a goal--40 percent of the public would strongly support the goal--and only 22 percent would oppose it. This figure is quite similar to the 74 percent of support reported in the first study in 2008. Support for a national goal of cutting poverty in half is very strong among African Americans (87 percent support, 58 percent strongly) and reaches roughly 80 percent among both Millennials (79 percent) and Latinos (79 percent). Sixty-five percent of whites support this goal as do a majority of Democrats (89 percent), Independents (66 percent), and Republicans (54 percent).
The public is clear about its priorities for reducing poverty--jobs, wages, and education. Asked which two areas they believe are most important for new investments, 40 percent of Americans choose ``creating jobs and increasing wages''; 30 percent choose ``job training and workplace preparation''; 25 percent choose ``elementary and secondary education''; 23 percent choose ``college access and affordability''; and 21 percent choose ``early childhood education.'' Americans also express very strong support for a number of policies to help reduce poverty rates with particular intensity around jobs, wages, and education but also on more traditional safety net items. Of the 11 policy ideas tested, five proposals received 80 percent or higher total support and 50 percent or higher strong support from Americans. These five policy proposals are: help low wage workers afford quality child care (86 percent total support, 52 percent strong support); expand nutrition assistance to provide families with healthy food and enough to eat (85 percent total support, 50 percent strong support); make universal pre-kindergarten available for all children (84 percent total support, 59 percent strong support); expand publicly funded scholarships to help more families afford college (84 percent total support, 54 percent strong support); and increase the minimum wage and make sure it rises with inflation (80 percent total support, 58 percent strong support). A second tier of anti-poverty proposals with roughly three-quarters total support and more than 40 percent strong support includes ideas for expanded tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit and access to affordable health coverage, as well as proposals for a new national jobs program and more refinancing of mortgages.
Policymakers should feel confident that the American public will support efforts to expand economic opportunity, increase access to good jobs and wages, and maintain a robust social safety net. Harsh negative attitudes about the poor that seemingly defined political discussions throughout the 1980s and 1990s have given way to public recognition that many Americans--poor and middle class alike--are facing many pressures trying to stay afloat and get ahead in the difficult economic environment. Supporters of anti-poverty efforts should not be complacent in their efforts, however, and should recognize that although Americans back government action to reduce poverty, questions remain about the structure and scope of these efforts and how effective they have been over time.
Let me give you an example. SNAP lifted 5 million people out of poverty in 2012 alone; and according to a new report by the White House, released yesterday, unemployment benefits reduced poverty by nearly 1 percent in 2012 alone.
Without Social Security, nearly half of our Nation's seniors would live in poverty; and since 2008, unemployment insurance has kept 11 million people out of poverty, including 2.5 million children and adults in 2012.
We are going to talk about not only the history this evening but also about the challenges ahead.
I will now yield to Congresswoman Yvette Clarke from New York to speak about many of the challenges which remain, in addition to a historical perspective on the war on poverty.