Right-wing media have spent the last few years baselessly dismissing the decades-long push to alleviate poverty as not worth the fight, despite evidence showing that government efforts to reduce poverty have been successful.
On January 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson used his State of the Union address to enumerate proposals that would come to be known as the War on Poverty. Many of the proposals and policy prescriptions outlined in the president's speech were eventually signed into law.
Recent research from the Columbia Population Research Center at Columbia University reveals the extent to which anti-poverty programs since the 1960s have alleviated poverty for millions of Americans. The study, titled "Trends in Poverty with an Anchored Supplemental Poverty Measure," uses a uniform measure of poverty (supplemental poverty measure or SPM) to show a dramatic drop-off in poverty rates from 1967 to 2011. From the study (emphasis added):
The OPM shows the overall poverty rates to be nearly the same in 1967 and 2011 -- at 14% and 15% respectively. But our counterfactual estimates using the anchored SPM show that without taxes and other government programs, poverty would have been roughly flat at 27-29%, while with government benefits poverty has fallen from 26% to 16% -- a 40% reduction. Government programs today are cutting poverty nearly in half (from 29% to 16%) while in 1967 they only cut poverty by about one percentage point.
Today, despite mounting evidence of their success, the corresponding anti-poverty programs created during the War on Poverty face incessant and withering criticism from conservative politicians and their right-wing media allies. Conservative media voices regularly repeat the claim that anti-poverty programs are useless, or that after 50 years they are no longer working. In fact, as recently as January 7, Fox News host Martha MacCallum cast doubt on whether or not lowering the poverty rate over the past five decades was worth the effort, but the following graph from The New York Times' Economix blog shows just how effective these programs have been:
Source: The New York Times, Economix Blog, "The War On Poverty at 50"
In addition to questioning the general efficacy of anti-poverty relief efforts, right-wing media voices have targeted specific Johnson-era programs and initiatives like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, expanded food stamps and welfare, and an increased minimum wage in their coordinated attempt to undermine the social safety net, effectively stymying the purpose of the War on Poverty.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Social Security program keeps more than 22 million Americans above the poverty line. The program's success, however, has not insulated it from media criticism. Media Matters research shows mainstream outlets engaging in rhetoric that attacks Social Security, but the right-wing media, led by Fox News, stands alone for the sheer scale of attacks against a program specifically designed to lift retirees out of poverty.
Medicare and Medicaid -- originally extensions of Social Security created as specific components of the War on Poverty -- have also faced right-wing media attacks. Media Matters research shows right-wing media repeatedly, and incorrectly, claiming that the expansion of Medicaid pursuant to the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare) will bankrupt participating states while cheering for deep cuts to Medicare, ostensibly out of concern for the long-term budget.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly “food stamps) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, formerly ” welfare") are among the most commonly attacked anti-poverty programs in the United States.
The food stamp program was upgraded and expanded in the 1960s as part of the War on Poverty, but has remained controversial in conservative political and media circles, with Fox leading the charge against food stamps for several years. The network regularly exaggerates claims of waste, fraud, and abuse in the program and has recently adopted the stance that it is simply too big. Participation in the program has grown throughout the past several years in response to an economic downturn and a corresponding growth of poverty in the United States, and Fox personalities regularly attack the program's growth and expense, ignoring the growth in poverty to which the program responds.
Like food stamps, the temporary benefit program commonly known as welfare is a constant target of right-wing media animus. Right-wing voices have dramatically inflated the cost of the program, dishonestly portrayed welfare recipients as outnumbering working Americans and, of course, hyped anecdotal cases of improper spending to demonize entire programs.
A final aspect in the War on Poverty, and the latest target of right-wing media vitriol, is proposals to increase the minimum wage. The Johnson administration amended or augmented the minimum wage four times to address the increasing cost of living and the need to lift low-wage workers out of poverty. Studies from the Economic Policy Institute and Center for Economic and Policy Research have shown that gradual increases to the minimum wage have no negative impact on employment, but these facts fail to permeate the right-wing media bubble.
Right-wing media have a long history of attacking the minimum wage, unsupported by evidence, and claiming that increasing wages to keep up with productivity and rising costs of living is unnecessary, bad for workers, or dangerous for the economy. Their opposition to increasing the federally-mandated minimum wage has intensified as public support of such proposals has grown.
In general, right-wing media have shown time and again that they have no clue how anti-poverty programs work.
Despite this entrenched opposition, support for anti-poverty relief programs remains high. According to data from the Center for American Progress, seven in 10 Americans support the goal of further reducing poverty by half in the next decade, and more than 80 percent of Americans support initiatives like expanded nutrition assistance, increases to the minimum wage, childcare assistance for needy families, and universal pre-kindergarten education.
President Obama's recent push to alleviate poverty and reduce economic inequality through measures like increasing the minimum wage and extending emergency unemployment benefits were immediately brushed off by right-wing media, who attempted to cast the White House's support for economically sensible policies that are widely favorable to the American public as a coordinated distraction from the difficult rollout of Obamacare health insurance exchanges via Healthcare.gov.
Even though right-wing media are sure to continue pretending that it was a fool's errand, the fact remains that the War on Poverty is working.