Shortly after assuming the presidency following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson announced his commitment to a war on poverty. That was the unofficial name of legislation first introduced by Johnson in his State of the Union address on January 8, 1964.
In the 2012 presidential election, the code word for equality was “middle class.” Certainly the middle class has been and still is in need of economic support from the government as well as from the wealthy households that are making more than a quarter of a million dollars each year. President Obama has been consistent in standing by his pledge that federal income taxes for the wealthy be raised from 35% to 39.6%.
Those in the middle class are generally active voters who were committed to maintaining the limited wealth that they have accumulated and retaining jobs that allow them to garner each year at least a livable wage or more. It is important for every politician who wants to win his or her race to focus the campaign toward the needs of the middle class. Republicans also try to appeal to the middle class, even though their policies generally favor the wealthy, at the expense of the middle class and the poor.
Lyndon Johnson grew up poor along the Pedernales River in central Texas. He experienced the rugged chores of farming as his family struggled to make ends meet. He also went from town to town peddling various wares. In 1926, Johnson enrolled in Southwest Teachers College. from which he graduated, and then found a job teaching in a one-room school house. This was obviously quite a difference from Mitt Romney, whom you might remember as the most recent Republican candidate for president.
While Barack Obama did not grow up as poor as LBJ, he clearly was aware of the plight of those with little or no money, because of his three years as a community organizer in Chicago. Even though he directed most of his comments in the campaign toward helping the middle class, he never lost sight of the needs of the poor, who he came to know so well after college and in the years that followed. His concern for the poor goes beyond those in the United States; it is essential to his international strategy, in which he strives to eradicate poverty in developing countries. He believes that eliminating income inequality in poor countries around the world is an essential part of strengthening global stability and promoting peace. As Zachary A. Goldfarb reported in the November 23 edition of the Washington Post,
When Barack Obama published his autobiography, “Dreams From My Father,” about racial identity in 1995, he talked with his neighborhood newspaper in Illinois, the Hyde Park Citizen, about the economic disparities he had seen while exploring the world as a child and young adult.
“My travels made me sensitive to the plight of those without power and the issues of class and inequalities as it relates to wealth and power,” he said in that interview. “Anytime you have been overseas in these so-called third world countries, one thing you see is a vast disparity of wealth of those who are part of the power structure and those outside of it.”
Goldfarb goes on to say:
Obama’s actions as president provide a glimpse of how he views legislation as a means to his end. His health-care reform law, aimed at covering as many of the uninsured as possible, takes a shot at addressing income inequality by imposing new taxes on the wealthiest Americans. Beginning next year, upper-income earners will pay new surcharges that will result in an average additional tax bill of $20,000 for the top 1 percent.
The poverty rate in the United States has grown considerably in recent years. As Bloomberg Businessweek reports,
For half a decade, the percent of Americans living below the poverty line has increased each year, from 12.3 percent in 2006 to 15.1 percent in 2010. Today the Census Bureau released its analysis of U.S. poverty in 2011, and the official poverty rate essentially held at 15 percent, meaning that 46.2 million people live below the poverty line.
A recent Frontline program on PBS explored the plight of poor children in Iowa. As I watched it, I couldn’t help but wish that John Boehner, Eric Kantor, and Mitch McConnell had been in the same room as me. I would have been most interested in their response to this depiction of poverty. I would have wanted to think that they would have a cathartic moment and changed their policies to favor legislation to address the needs of the poor. However, my reality bone told me that in all likelihood they would have blamed the victims, the poor children of eastern Iowa, rather than support any action to improve their lives.
Most progressives hope that Barack Obama has a secret, and so far undisclosed set of policies, that he wants to propose and see enacted in his second term. These may include stricter gun control laws, a new stimulus package, and a quicker withdrawal from Afghanistan. If the president “wins” the battle over the so-called “fiscal cliff,” it would be refreshing and encouraging to have him advance more of a comprehensive policy toward meeting the needs of the poor. There is little doubt that he would support such a policy. The question is whether he thinks that it would be a battle that he could win. The key to this decision lies primarily in restoring a veto-proof majority in the Senate as well as a new majority in the House in the 2014 mid-term elections.