Evaluating history can do one of two things – help us learn and grow from mistakes or fill us with ruminations of “what if” questions. Looking back at President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty could easily set the what if questions ablaze. What if the creation of Medicare actually included all citizens or only covered the elderly? What if the criteria to determine poverty levels had been updated and allowed to be adjusted with technological advances?
For the most part those questions only put us on a path towards writing a college paper or a book. Looking back should be a learning process. With LBJ’s Great Society and War on Poverty he propelled Congress and a nation to believe in a greater communal responsibility. The creation of Medicare provided key access to health care for seniors and the poor. In 1966, 28.5% of seniors were in poverty. Today that sits at 10.1%.
Johnson enlisted Sargent Shriver to head the newly formed Office of Economic Opportunity in 1965. During the office’s tenure programs such as Head Start, VISTA, and Legal Services were created to aid poor communities. Nixon ultimately dismantled the office in 1973 but the three key programs were dispersed into other governmental agencies. The backlash of Johnson’s War on Poverty became more a War on the Poor.
Many observers point out that the War on Poverty’s attention to Black America created the grounds for the backlash that began in the 1970s. The perception by the white middle class that it was footing the bill for ever-increasing services to the poor led to diminished support for welfare state programs, especially those that targeted specific groups and neighborhoods. Many whites viewed Great Society programs as supporting the economic and social needs of low-income urban minorities; they lost sympathy, especially as the economy declined during the 1970s.
The stereotypes continued to build up during the 80′s and 90′s with the idea of crack addicts and welfare queens. More subtle words like lazy or moochers became prevalent to cast a wary eye on the poor. So much so that the idea of a poor person can conjure up a fat, lazy, slob in front of the television for many people. The country has for the most part bought into it. Rush Limbaugh can even say this on his radio show: (via Andrew Sullivan)
We all know Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, but unemployment compensation? The payment of unemployment benefits is almost as high as Social Security in this country. Folks, we are not going to survive as a nation, not the way we’ve been founded, with this kind of sloth and laziness and feeding at the public trough. It just cannot happen. And to even call this “wages” — I’m actually kinda glad they did because it points out how ludicrous this is and how dangerous it is. “Handouts,” handouts, the redistribution of wealth “makes up one-third of US wages.” Social welfare spending has increased three and a half times since 1960.
We declared war on poverty, and it’s given us this. We declared war on poverty, and what do we have? Thirty-five percent of our people living on the dole! Thirty-five percent of American citizens living on “handouts,” and where are the handouts coming from? Their fellow citizens… I know it’s depressing, folks. I mean some people are so lazy that they will only be unemployed if they’re paid to be unemployed.
After this diatribe, an anxious listener called to confess his sins:
I’m kind of caught between a rock and a hard place. I’ve been a conservative all my life. I don’t agree with the welfare state — of our country. I ran into a little bit of an issue a few years ago when I got some severe cancer and battled it for a couple years. I’m cancer free right now, but unfortunately I cannot work and I had to go on disability.
Here’s how Limbaugh responded:
Do you think I actually think you ought to be denied stuff? Okay. I don’t think that. I’m not talking about people like you, but there are people who fudge this disability business. I had a story not long ago about a bunch of drunks in jail getting disability payments because they were alcoholics. Well, we are a compassionate country. There is not a person in this country that does not want somebody who cannot provide for themselves to go empty. There’s not a person in the world who wants that. You don’t fall under the headline definition freeloader or what have you. And if you’re bothered by it, it’s life.
A lot of things affect a lot of people. But we’re not talking about you. And you are not the majority of that 35% on the dole anyway. You’re a small percentage of it. You’re not the problem we’re talking about.
Now here is a radio host lamenting the idea of providing for the basic well-being of his fellow citizens. He jumps on a story in which the premise is completely flawed to fit his own narrative. Social Security benefits are not just disability as well all know. It is a retirement system we all pay into and current retirees are receiving their benefits. He ignores the fact of the recent economic crisis and increased unemployment. All the while a caller feels guilty for something that is completely out of his control.
This man, a fellow conservative, bares a vulnerable part of himself that is covered in this guilt and seemingly dismisses his guilt as life. He somewhat reassures this man that he is not to blame but these drunks and freeloaders are dragging this country down. They are the one’s to blame and are the majority of the “35%.”
The 70 year old retired couple is to blame as they collect their social security benefits. The 32 year old man paralyzed from a car accident and receiving disability are to blame. The 44 year old mother getting an unemployment check for the last year because she was laid off as a paralegal at her law firm is to blame.
These are the freeloaders and go into the same category as a bunch of drunks sitting in jail. Forget the fact that alcoholism is a disease just as much as his drug addiction to oxycodone and his own arrest.
Regardless of his own history, the blame game is a strategic media campaign to distort the poor and cast them aside. Almost like untouchables. They are untouchables in our own American way. If noticed, they are to be avoided, shunned or to be a lesson in order to not be them.
© Aaron Krager 2008-2013 | Have any questions? Send me an email.