The Federal Government Didn’t Lose the War on Poverty. It Retreated.

U.S. Poverty Rate, 1959 to 2009

In 1904, half the population of New York City lived below the poverty line.

Half. Can you imagine? The poor were so numerous that they nearly outnumbered everyone else.

Today, less than 20 percent of New Yorkers live in poverty. That’s still a serious problem, but it’s a far cry from 50 percent.

Clearly, we did something right.

But in today’s political arena, we don’t talk about what we did right. We talk about what we’re doing wrong. We spend so much time talking about our problems and failures that we seem to have forgotten our nation’s great victories.

This historical amnesia is a dangerous mistake. It poisons our hearts with pessimism. It blinds us to the lessons and solutions we need. Most New Yorkers have no idea how prevalent poverty used to be — or how their predecessors made it go away.

And they’re not the only ones. “We have spent $15 trillion from the federal government fighting poverty,” said Rep. Paul Ryan on Fox News last month, “and look at where we are, the highest poverty rates in a generation, 15 percent of Americans live in poverty.”

Ryan is speaking on behalf of millions of Americans who believe that the War on Poverty was a failure, when in fact it’s one of the greatest success stories in our nation’s history.

If Ryan thinks 15 percent is high, he should go back a hundred years when the poverty rate was three times that. Back then, the government didn’t officially measure poverty, but historians have reconstructed close approximations based on the cost of living and the distribution of household income in those days. Thanks to their calculations, we now know that 44 to 45 percent of Americans lived in poverty in the early 1910s.

A generation later, after the Great Depression and World War II, the poverty rate had fallen to 22 percent.

Can you imagine? They cut the poverty rate in half — from 44 percent to 22 percent — in only a couple decades.

As far as wars go, that’s an astonishing victory. It should be celebrated alongside Gettysburg and Normandy. It should be commemorated and committed to our children’s memories. It should be studied by our civilian leaders in the same way that battlefield strategy is studied by our military leaders.

On this particular battlefield, the strategy that paid off was the New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ambitious series of programs that created jobs for the unemployed, Social Security for the elderly, regulation for the bankers, a minimum wage for the workers, and legal protections for the labor unions.

But the war was not over. One in five Americans still lived below the poverty line. And so, on January 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson stood before Congress and made it official: “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty.”

Congress proceeded to embark on the Great Society, patching the holes left in Roosevelt’s New Deal. They expanded health insurance with Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor. They increased Social Security benefits and education funding for poor school districts. They established civil rights and a permanent food stamp program. They invested in urban redevelopment, rural development, and public transportation.

A decade later, the poverty rate bottomed out at 11 percent.

For the second time in half a century, the United States had cut the poverty rate in half — from 22 percent to 11 percent. And just as before, this extraordinary victory faded from our memories, and the policies that spawned it faded from our favor. We allowed labor laws to go unenforced, public investment to decline, and the minimum wage to stagnate even as the cost of living soared. We deregulated banking, and we stopped trying to get enough jobs for the unemployed or enough education funding for poor school districts.

So it’s no surprise that the poverty rate rose to 15 percent during the Great Recession. A century of progress has been forgotten.

Eliminating that final 15 percent is one of the great tasks before us in the 21st century. As we craft new solutions, let us not forget to preserve the old ones — and to honor the memory of those who worked so hard to give us so much.

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This op-ed was published in Friday’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

How We Stopped Investing in the Future: A Florida Case Study

In June 2009, ten Florida Congressmen sent a letter to the Department of Transportation, requesting over $2 billion from the federal government. They wanted to build a high-speed rail line, shuttling passengers from Tampa to Orlando and eventually Miami in only two hours. The money was supposed to come from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the $787 billion “stimulus” bill that newly-elected President Barack Obama signed in February of that year.

Of the ten Florida Congressmen, three were Republicans, and all three had voted against the stimulus: Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Adam Putnam.

This kind of about-face wasn’t unusual. Many Republicans were begging for a piece of the stimulus after they had tried to kill it in Congress. Even party leaders like Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor got in on the action.

John Boehner defended this contradiction by saying that the stimulus would fund “shovel-ready projects that will create much-needed jobs.” Only a few months earlier, he had been saying the exact opposite — and relentlessly trashing anyone who dared to disagree with him.

The Tampa-Orlando rail line really did fit Boehner’s definition. It was shovel-ready because almost all the land and permits were already lined up, and according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, it would create 27,000 jobs.

Moreover, it was good fiscal policy. According to two separate reports, the project would produce an annual surplus of $31 million to $45 million by 2026 — and that didn’t include the much more profitable connection to Miami that was likely to follow.

And it was good environmental policy. High-speed rail emits far less greenhouse gas than cars, especially in densely populated regions like central and southeastern Florida, which is why overflowing cities in China, Europe, and Japan have surged so far ahead of us in this vehicle of the future. It saves time, money, and pollution. Unsurprisingly, it’s very popular.

Fifty years ago, this would have been a no-brainer. In the 1950s and the 1960s, politicians were dedicated to investing in new technology and staying one step ahead of the Soviet Union. It’s no coincidence that economic growth was faster and more widespread in those days.

Back then, the federal government spent 2.6 percent of the nation’s income on nonmilitary investment. In the last twenty years, it has averaged 1.8 percent per year. That difference of 0.8 percent may not seem like a lot, but it adds up to trillions and trillions of dollars that could have gone into research and development, education, and new infrastructure — and, if previous investments are any indication, would have yielded benefits many times higher than the costs.

As economist Eugene Steuerle put it, “We have a budget for a declining nation.”

On January 28, 2010, the White House granted Florida’s request. By December, the Department of Transportation had allocated $2.4 billion against a cost of $2.65 billion, and they promised to cover any cost overruns. Had Florida accepted the money, its workers would be laying rail for the Sunshine State bullet train at this very moment.

Instead, Governor Rick Scott rejected the deal, citing cost concerns that didn’t make much sense since the feds were on the hook for any losses.

Thus did the dreams of high-speed rail die in Florida. Thus do many dreams of the future die in the modern political arena.

In Tampa, there’s a street called Bayshore Boulevard. It’s the longest continuous sidewalk in the world. It’s a beautiful walk, with a balustrade that overlooks the water below. It was built in the 1930s by the Public Works Administration, part of the federal government’s response to the Great Depression. It’s just one of many breathtaking feats of construction that dot this great land of ours, each a reminder that, as Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said during the high-speed rail fiasco, “We still know how to do big things in this country.”

I’d like to think that’s true. I’d like to think we still care about the future. I’d like to think we can build a better tomorrow. I only wish Governor Scott and his fellow ideologues felt the same way.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Three Dirty Little Words: Liberal Media Bias

“Are any of you voting for Mitt Romney?” host Jimmy Kimmel asked the audience at the Emmy’s last month. “Okay,” he said after listening to the smattering of applause, “there’s forty Republicans and the rest: godless, liberal homosexuals.”

“Being a Republican in Hollywood,” he joked, “is like being a Chick-fil-A sandwich on the snack table at Glee.”

I work in Hollywood. So I’ve seen my fair share of “liberal bias.” And I’m here to tell you that there is no liberal bias in the American media.

Oh sure, some news outlets are more liberal than others. Everyone knows that MSNBC is the channel for Democrats and Fox News is the channel for Republicans. And everyone knows that the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal is more conservative than that of the New York Times. But it is flat-out untrue that the media as a whole leans to the left.

I mention this because Paul Ryan, the Republican nominee for vice president, recently accused the media of trying to swing the election in his opponents’ favor.

All evidence to the contrary. This summer, the Pew Research Center examined the news reports of 50 major news outlets and found that 72 percent of the references to Barack Obama were negative, compared to 71 percent of the references to Mitt Romney. Similarly, statistical wunderkind Nate Silver examined the historical record and found that presidential election “polls have no…history of partisan bias.”

This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s spent any time studying the subject. Experts have combed through the archives looking for all sorts of bias. The Journal of Communication collected the results of 59 published research papers on media bias, and they came to three clear conclusions: In newspapers, there is no bias. In network television, there is a tiny — and I mean tiny — liberal bias. And in magazines, there is — wait for it — a conservative bias!

But you don’t have to read the Journal of Communication to figure that out. Just look around you. As media reporter David Carr pointed out earlier this week, the bestselling newspaper in America is the famously conservative Wall Street Journal, the most popular cable news channel is Fox News, and three of the top five radio broadcasters are Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage — and those guys make Mitt Romney look like Lyndon Johnson.

Moreover, every major news outlet is owned by a massive multinational corporation. Gannett owns the USA Today. Time Warner owns CNN. Comcast and General Electric own NBC and MSNBC. Walt Disney owns ABC. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and CBS are all listed on the New York Stock Exchange — and the majority shareholder of CBS is the billionaire Sumner Redstone.

Where do you think the sympathies of these mega-rich capitalists lie? Do you really think they’d let their news outlets dismantle the free market system that’s made them so wealthy?

And so what if they did? Is a “liberal bias” inherently wrong? Instead of asking whether a news outlet is conservative or liberal, shouldn’t we be asking if they’re right? Shouldn’t we demand, above all else, that the media tell us the truth? And what law of nature says that the truth is always nonpartisan?

It’s a fact that tax cuts for the rich haven’t increased economic growth. It’s a fact that the Earth is warming because of carbon emissions from manmade objects. It’s a fact that Palestine is a humanitarian disaster because Israel is blockading critical exports and imports.

And we’re supposed to sugarcoat these facts because they don’t fit into some people’s agendas?

The economist Paul Krugman has a famous saying: “If a presidential candidate were to declare that the earth is flat, you would be sure to see a news analysis under the headline ‘Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.'”

And who comes up with these “sides” anyway?

In Europe, “conservatives” recoil at the idea of a government failing to allocate affordable health insurance to all its citizens. In America, rightwinger Glenn Beck gets a primetime slot on television, but a real leftist like Noam Chomsky is taboo.

Who’s the liberal equivalent of Glenn Beck? Rachel Maddow? Come on. This is a woman who said she’s “in almost total agreement with the Eisenhower-era Republican party platform.”

When was the last time you heard an American politician say that the government should give a job to every unemployed person who is willing and able to work? How many media pundits endorse tax rates above 50 percent or the abolition of nuclear weapons? Forty years ago, some of our most famous leaders were advocating exactly these solutions. Now, they’re fringe ideas at best.

Every time someone says “conservative” or “liberal,” I’m reminded of a line from the movie Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

My point here isn’t that we should change the system or that we should embrace leftist ideology. All I’m saying is, this is a ridiculous debate, and we must stop having it because it’s distracting us from the real issues in a very important election.

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An abbreviated version of this op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

A Most Cruel, Cynical Duo

In reaction to today’s news that Mitt Romney has chosen Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, I’m reproducing my op-ed from April on Ryan’s claim to fame — his budget proposal:

Do you think the government should spend less money on Medicare? On Medicaid? On education? On aid to the poor? On veterans’ benefits?

If you’re like most Americans, your answer to all of these questions is, “No.”

According to a recent poll, less than a quarter of Americans want the government to cut spending on these programs. Even the majority of Republican primary voters are opposed to such reductions.

Yet House Republicans recently passed a budget that significantly reduces spending for all these programs. And those same Republican primary voters are most supportive of the one candidate who has publicly endorsed this budget: Mitt Romney.

Clearly, most Americans have no idea what Romney and the author of the budget, Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, stand for.

Ryan’s budget slashes spending from almost everything except Social Security and defense. Of the $5.3 trillion he wants to eliminate over the next decade, $3.3 trillion comes from programs that benefit low-income Americans: Medicaid, Pell Grants, food stamps, job training, school lunch, etc.

Seriously, school lunch. Evidently, Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney believe that the richest country in the history of the world can’t afford to provide its children with one decent meal a day.

Yet we can afford to pay the average millionaire an extra $265,000 per year. That’s how much more they’d earn if Ryan’s tax cuts became law.

Millionaires would get a raise of 12.5 percent on their after-tax income. The middle class would get a raise of less than 2 percent.

Is there an epidemic of suffering millionaires that I’m unaware of? Are they unable to pay their health insurance? Their student loans? Their mortgages?

No. Those are middle-class problems.

And they’ll become bigger problems if Ryan’s budget becomes law. Fewer Pell Grants will result in a lot more student debt, and less funding for the Affordable Care Act will rescind affordable health insurance for upwards of 30 million Americans.

Economists expect unemployment to remain high for several more years. Ryan’s solution is to fire thousands of federal employees.

Our veterans are suffering from record levels of post-traumatic stress disorder after multiple tours of duty in a war that most Americans no longer support. Ryan’s solution is to dishonor their sacrifice by skimping on their health care.

Income inequality has triggered protests in the streets and unsustainable household debt. Ryan’s solution is to pay the rich more and the poor less.

“If they can’t afford food or health care, let them die.” That should be Paul Ryan’s motto. Put that on your Mitt Romney bumper sticker.

And don’t think this is hyperbole, because they are dying. According to Harvard Medical School researchers, 45,000 Americans die every year because they lack health insurance and therefore cannot get the necessary care. According to researchers at Columbia University and the Federal Reserve, being unemployed for a year increases your odds of dying by 50 percent. Another year, and it’s 100 percent.

This is a cruel, cynical world we live in where hard-working men and women are tossed aside like road-kill for political gain.

“I’ve always resented the smug statements of politicians, media commentators, corporate executives who talked about how, in America, if you worked hard, you would become rich,” said the great historian Howard Zinn. “The meaning of that was: if you were poor, it was because you hadn’t worked hard enough. I knew this was a lie about my father and millions of others, men and women who worked harder than anyone.”

Indeed they did. This country was built on their broken backs. But Mitt Romney thinks they’re expendable — and when you go to the voting booth in November, he’s counting on you not to notice.