The War on Poverty
Jesus said that the meek would inherit the earth and that the poor are blessed, but his contemporary followers are fairly convinced that he was bullshitting on that one, worn out from miracle-making and winding up for a good punchline which history failed to record. America’s preference has always been to pretend that there are no poor people, and if there are, it’s probably their fault anyway. But in the sixties, with the Great Depression still in living memory, and with a slowly awakening awareness that rural blacks and whites alike often lived in grinding poverty, it was briefly in vogue to “consider the neediest,” as the odd tag line inexplicably reads after certain articles in the New York Times. This was less out of a true sense of charity, one suspects, than it was out of the era’s misplaced competitiveness with the Soviet bogeyman, which was way ahead of America in its own efforts to combat poverty. The Soviets had simply renamed it the Proletariat, praised it to the sky, and increased its numbers. Lyndon Johnson called America to wage a War on Poverty, but poverty is a hard thing to get your arms around, and that war swiftly and inexorably changed into something more like a war on poor people. Johnsonian efforts at redistributionist economics matched early on with a generally strong economy, but as those fortunes went south, so too did the idea that anything could be done about the poor, who quickly went from noble, if hardscrabble, folk characters to dangerous black people lurking around every city corner. By the time Ronald Reagan first said the words “welfare queen,” the fix was in. The poor had transmogrified into a legion of flashy pimps. Bill Clinton ended “welfare as we know it,” and Democrats decided that it wasn’t the poor they wanted to help, but the “working class,” a transparent and hoary neologism designed solely to prevent White America from associating anti-poverty programs with crackheads and other mythical varieties of blacks.