War on Poverty still debated a half century later

Democrats and Republicans took sharply different stances on the impact of President Lyndon B. Johnson declaring “War on Poverty” 50 years ago Wednesday.

The anniversary came while the Senate is debating an extension of emergency unemployment benefits that expired for many at the end of December.

More than 7,800 Louisiana residents had their unemployment benefits canceled. That includes 766 people in East Baton Rouge Parish, 833 in Jefferson Parish and 796 in New Orleans, according to congressional records.

Another 12,400 people in Louisiana are slated to lose their benefits within the next six months.

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, and other members of the Republican Study Committee that he chairs argued that “big government” welfare programs are in dire need of “reform” and streamlining.

The poverty rate was 15 percent in 2012, down slightly from the mid-1960s. Critics charge the change has been negligible and expensive. Scalise said the nation has spent $15 trillion on the “War on Poverty” and that 10 million more Americans are living in poverty now than 50 years ago. The counterargument made by President Barack Obama and others is that the poverty rate has decreased significantly since the 1960s, but that more people overall are living in poverty only because the nation’s population has grown substantially.

Supporters say the rate could be higher if not for the expansion of safety net programs.

Partisan divisions over how to proceed were clear Wednesday.

Scalise accused Obama of preventing job creation in the energy sector and more.

“Americans want jobs and yet the president has been standing in the way of people getting those jobs,” Scalise said, citing the still-pending Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., proposed a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s anti-poverty programs, arguing that for decades Washington has been too fixed on dealing with poverty’s consequences rather than its causes.

Rubio’s address to experts and reporters at the Capitol’s Lyndon B. Johnson Room was a marquee event during a day of reflection and speeches on how to tackle poverty.

“Our anti-poverty programs should be replaced with a revenue-neutral flex fund,” Rubio argued. “We would streamline most of our existing federal anti-poverty funding into one single agency.”

Each year, the flex funds would go to states “so they can design and fund creative initiatives that address the factors behind inequality of opportunity.” Rubio offered no list as to what programs would be involved in his initiative, other than perhaps the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.

The senator also proposed replacing the earned income tax credit, a popular break for lower- and moderate-income workers, with a “federal wage enhancement for qualifying low-wage jobs.”

Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., said, “The formula for beating poverty is a job. It’s really a strong economy. It’s the number of people working, not the number of checks handed out.”

Obama contended that the poverty rate has dipped by nearly 40 percent since the 1960s. He cited the creation of Social Security, Medicare and the Earned Income Tax Credit as major reasons for gains.

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, said the government needs to do more, not less, to help people in poverty. But he argued the private sector must do more as well.

About 20 percent of Louisiana residents live in poverty, he said, above the national 15 percent average.

“Louisiana is in the top 10 of American states with the most income inequality,” Richmond said. “This is unacceptably high and it will take commitment from the government and from the private sector to partner to do more to remedy this affliction. We need to invest more in education, infrastructure, health care and small business, and we need to do it together.”

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Republicans are ignoring the realities of the real world where hard-working people need money to buy groceries to feed their children or to purchase gasoline to drive to job interviews. Republicans also ignore the wealthy using loopholes to cheat the tax code of much more money, he said.

“Put down those Ayn Rand books for a minute and take a look at the real world,” Durbin said. “They (unemployment recipients) put the money right back in the economy because they’re living day to day.”

With the unemployment benefits bill pending in the Senate, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., is planning to support it.

Landrieu said Louisiana has relatively low unemployment rates, despite higher poverty rates. She said she is “sympathetic” to other parts of the country, where people have pressing needs.

“It’s an emergency,” Landrieu said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Because Landrieu is up for re-election this year with U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, as her top opponent, the Democratic “Campaign for Louisiana” that is supporting Landrieu targeted Cassidy on the issue. The Democrats alleged Cassidy has adopted a “shameful refusal to help Louisiana families” in need.

Cassidy countered that the Obama administration is letting down Louisiana families.

“We know what creates jobs and it’s the domestic energy sector,” Cassidy said. “Look at the people who’ve been particularly hurt in this economy – it’s blue-collar workers who are working in mining or manufacturing or construction.”

“Real solutions” require that Obama “take his boot off the neck of our domestic energy industry,” Cassidy said. “Under his watch, regulations have increased dramatically” and fought against job creation. The president often touts that domestic energy production has increased substantially under his watch, but critics are quick to note that those increases have come off of private lands, not federal lands.

David Lightman of the McClatchy Washington bureau contributed to this report.