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The poverty campaign

By Thomas E. Brewton
web posted July 23, 2007

John Edwards's campaign mantra should be, James Carville-style, "It's the capitalists, stupid!"

A recent Wall Street Journal story says that John Edwards may be trailing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but his Johnnie-One-Note hammering on poverty and "the two Americas" is forcing all of the Democratic Party hopefuls to include it in their own campaign promises.

We should remind ourselves about two aspects of Mr. Edwards's program. 

First, it comes out of the fundamentals of socialism.  Second, it has been tried many times, both at the state and national levels, always with very bad results.  The poor wind up in worse shape than before they started. 

Look at the pathetically helpless people in New Orleans, still unable to deal with the results of Katrina, because their society has been victimized by the welfare-state mentality started by Huey Long in the 1920s and institutionalized by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s. 

Other examples are New England and upstate New York, once the major manufacturing areas of the nation, now well below the national average, because state and Federal taxes and regulations to redistribute income, along with political pandering to labor unions, have made free enterprise increasingly uneconomic.

Lyndon Johnson, an FDR emulator, rode the socialist pony in the 1960s with his War on Poverty, a theme which President Kennedy had planned to use at the time of his assassination. 

President Johnson's campaign originated in 1962’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States, which became required reading for the Kennedy administration’s New Frontiersmen.  The author was Michael Harrington, an influential liberal and the chairman and principal spokesman for the American Socialist party.  His thesis was that large sectors of the population remained permanently in poverty, no matter how prosperous the general economy. 

As had the settlement house socialists at the turn of the century, Mr. Harrington spoke of “structural poverty”, the idea that our society of Jeffersonian individualism had created this poverty and, furthermore, made it impossible for the poor ever to escape poverty by their own efforts.  To provide the poor with their Constitutional entitlements required restructuring our political and economic society to place decision-making in the hands of intellectual planners, Harrington declared:

In order to do this, there is a need for planning.…What is needed is that the society make use of its knowledge in a rational and systematic way. Of course, states and cities are incapable of doing this; only the Federal Government has the power to abolish poverty.…as a place for coordination, for planning, and the establishment of national standards.

In his 1968 Toward a Democratic Left: A Radical Program for a New Majority Mr. Harrington summarized Senator Edwards's paradigm: 

Even in a society based on private economic power, the Government can be an agency of social, rather than corporate, purpose…This does not require a fundamental transformation of the system.  It does, however, mean that the society will democratically plan “uneconomic” allocations of significant resources.…

Under such conditions it would be possible to realize full — and meaningful — employment for all those ready and able to work.  Going beyond the quantities of the New Deal, the economy could be stimulated by promoting the affluence of the public sector rather than by tax cuts, and in the process millions of creative jobs can be designed to better the nation’s education, health, leisure, and the like.

In other words, put all the poor on the Federal payroll.

Within twenty years such a policy of social investments should end all poverty, eradicate the slums and erode the economic basis of racism.  And those people who are unable to work could be provided with a guaranteed annual income instead of shoddy, uncoordinated and inadequate welfare payments.……

The very character of modern technology, [Harvard economist John] Galbraith says, renders the old market mechanisms obsolete.  In these circumstances planning is obligatory.  The state must manage the economy in order to guarantee sufficient purchasing power to buy the products of the industrial system.

The real-world results of President Johnson's War on Poverty? 

The worst inflation in the nation's history wiped out more than half the purchasing power of people's lifetime savings; unemployment approached Depression levels; education fell off a cliff; cities were gutted by riots and fires; crime rates soared; illegitimate births rose to heights never before experienced in world history; drug addiction became widespread; sexual promiscuity and scatological language became the norm in real life, as well as in TV, movies, and the print media.

And, oh yes, poverty is still with us, if we are to believe Mr. Edwards and his socialist confreres in the Democratic Party. ESR

Thomas E. Brewton is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets. His weblog is The View From 1776. Email comments to viewfrom1776@thomasbrewton.com.


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