In the 1986 State of the Union address, Ronald Reagan proclaimed:
“My friends, some years ago, the Federal Government declared war on poverty, and poverty won. …Federal welfare programs have created a massive social problem. With the best of intentions, government created a poverty trap that wreaks havoc on the very support system the poor need most to lift themselves out of poverty: the family. Dependency has become the one enduring heirloom, passed from one generation to the next, of too many fragmented families.”
Many of welfare reform experiments were initiated at the state and federal level during Reagan’s presidency, and by 1996, Aid to Families with Dependent Children was eliminated and replaced by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The number of people on welfare fell dramatically (no surprise, given the time limits) and given the strong economy, the percentage of the population in poverty fell from 13.7 percent (1996) to 11.3 percent (2000). From that point on, the percentage of the population below the poverty rate continued to increase, reaching 12.7 percent in 2004 and exceeding 15.1 percent by 2010. It currently hovers around 16 percent. For those interested in the trendline on poverty, National Journal has a useful infographic on the “War on Poverty 50 Years Later.” A wealth of data can be found in the Census Bureau’s Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States.
Yesterday, President Obama marked the 50th anniversary of Johnson’s War on Poverty with a speech . Drawing on his 2013 State of the Union, Obama announced the creation of “Promise Zones,” the first five of which will be in San Antonio, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Southeastern Kentucky, and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Although President Obama framed his announcement with a celebration of the War on Poverty, the Promise Zones do not have the feel of Johnson-era programs. Rather, the initiative seems like an amalgam of Jack Kemp’s efforts at HUD, Clinton-era partnerships, and George W. Bush’s faith-based initiatives. Indeed, the White House description of Promise Zones lists tax incentives as a core policy instrument:
“The President’s proposal includes the Promise Zones tax credit (crafted on the proven model of Empowerment Zones tax credits), that would provide private businesses tax incentives for hiring and investing in Promise Zones, to create jobs and attract additional private investments.”
During the President’s address, the examples of potential actions—providing assistance in developing vocational education or literacy programs, facilitating investment for a new grocery store in an urban neighborhood—seemed rather small and tailored to the needs of the individual communities. It is clear that the emphasis will be placed on promoting collaboration rather than funding. As the New York Times notes: “White House officials said the Promise Zones initiative would not provide new money, rather it would be aimed at providing the local governments and agencies “aid in cutting through red tape to get access to existing resources.”
Given the priority attached to poverty (and economic mobility, inequality), the Promise Zone initiative seems rather modest. It is unclear whether this reflects (1) a deeper understanding of the flaws intrinsic in many of the larger programs introduced by LBJ, or (2) the practical fact that it would prove difficult to get more significant legislation through Congress.
Then again, perhaps it is just symbolic politics.