Deep divides split Washington over how to combat poverty

Fifty years after President Lyndon Johnson first declared "War on Poverty," lawmakers are still looking for ways to root it out of society. In 2014, it stands to be a central issue as Democrats shape their legislative and campaign agendas around issues like unemployment benefits and a minimum wage increase. But there are Republicans looking get in on the action as well.

As political divisions between the two parties have deepened in recent years, so have the differences between their fiscal philosophies. The debate over whether to extend emergency unemployment benefits is a microcosm of this larger divide as Democrats call for an unconditional extension of benefits and Republicans seek to offset the cost and add additional job-creation measures. Many of the 2014 debates may well center around who is doing more to help low-income and middle-class Americans.

Johnson declared a "War on Poverty" in his 1964 State of the Union address in an effort to reduce the 19 percent poverty rate in the United States. His Great Society legislation, a continuation of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, helped launch Medicare and Medicaid, expanded the federal food stamp program and funding for education, and launched a slew of volunteer programs. The success of the program is a mixed bag: the poverty rate has fallen just four points, from 19 percent to 15 percent, but many argue that Johnson’s programs made a major improvement for the standard of living for the poorest Americans and prevented the poverty rate from climbing higher.

President Obama and congressional Democrats have both pointed to issues of economic equality as a central focus of the next year. “We have a situation in America today that is really not good. The last 30 years, the top one percent of Americans, and their income and wealth has increased three hundred percent. The middle class during that same thirty years has lost almost ten percent. We’ve got to turn this around,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday. “I have nothing against rich people. But the rich are getting richer. The poor are getting poorer. The middle class are being squeezed out of existence.”

 His tone echoes that of Mr. Obama, who gave a speech in December calling the combination of growing income inequality and a lack of upward mobility as “the defining challenge of our time.” The speech was light on specific policy prescriptions, but the issue is expected to be a central focus of his Jan. 28 State of the Union address.  During the coming year, Democrats will likely push for issues like a minimum wage increase, universal pre-kindergarten, and closing tax loopholes and deductions that benefit the wealthy.

On the Republican side, a handful of lawmakers in particular are seeking to become champions on the issue of poverty. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. – who Democrats accuse of targeting the poor and seniors with his tax-cutting, entitlement-reforming budgets – is seeking to model himself after mentor and 1996 Republican vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp. He has taken to quietly visiting inner-city neighborhoods to discuss the issue, and delivered a speech near the end of his run as the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee where he said the government’s “centralized, bureaucratic, top-down anti-poverty programs” have failed.

"In this war on poverty, poverty is winning," he said during the speech, in which he encouraged people to measure success in fighting poverty by outcomes rather than dollars spent. Ryan will mark the anniversary of Johnson’s speech in an interview about poverty with NBC’s Brian Williams on Thursday.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the child of Cuban immigrants, has spoken frequently in about the increasing difficulty in achieving the American dream and called for a variety of measures to increase opportunity like education reform. Over the weekend, he released a video pledging to release an agenda for the country that would create a “new opportunity society in America” that will reduce government deficits and give people the skills they need to succeed though measures like repealing and replacing Obamacare and strengthening retirement programs.

“After 50 years, isn’t it time to declare big government’s war on poverty a failure?” he asks.

Rubio and Ryan aren’t the only two. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., used a recent speech in Detroit to advocate for the idea of “economic freedom zones” in the bankrupt city by lowering taxes and encouraging immigration. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, spoke at the Heritage Foundation in November and encouraged his fellow conservatives to take a leading role in reforming government anti-poverty efforts by doing a better job of directing federal funds to those in need and reforming education, the criminal justice system, taxes, and regulations, among other things. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., has fashioned himself the GOP’s champion of education reform.

It remains to be seen who will claim Johnson’s legacy – or achieve far more than he could. His daughter, Lynda Johnson Robb, will attend a ceremony at the Capitol Wednesday marking the 50th anniversary of his speech, hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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