WASHINGTON – Republicans for years have proclaimed the federal government’s decades-old War on Poverty a failure.
“Americans are no better off today than they were before the War on Poverty began in 1964,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., wrote in his 2016 plan to dramatically scale back the federal safety net.
Now the Trump administration is pitching a new message on anti-poverty programs, saying efforts that Republicans had long condemned as ineffective have already worked.
The White House in a report this week declared the War on Poverty “largely over and a success,” arguing that few Americans are truly poor — only about 3 percent of the population — and that the booming economy is the best path upward for those who remain in poverty.
“Over the past 54 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of a War on Poverty, federal spending on welfare programs targeting low-income households has grown dramatically, contributing to a substantial reduction in material hardship,” the White House Council of Economic Advisers wrote, saying that poverty had fallen by 90 percent since the programs began.
The report is the latest in a string of Trump administration efforts to argue that poverty is a diminishing problem in the United States. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said last month that no more than 250,000 Americans are in “extreme poverty,” denouncing a United Nations report saying 18.5 million Americans suffer extreme impoverishment.
And the report marks a departure from decades of GOP rhetoric, party veterans say.
“We argued over dollar figures and whether people had to work or not. We never argued over the fact we had a problem,” said Jane Calderwood, who served as chief of staff to Olympia Snowe when the Maine Republican was in Congress. “I can’t remember Republicans ever saying, ‘We’ve defeated poverty and can just move on now.’ ”
The new messaging comes as the White House and Republicans in Congress pursue their long-held goal of adding work requirements for recipients of food stamps, Medicaid and housing subsidies. At a time of low unemployment and high job vacancies, able-bodied enrollees in federal assistance programs can best escape poverty by getting jobs, Republicans say.
Critics contend that White House officials and other Republicans are massively understating the scope of American poverty, saying GOP plans to impose work requirements will hurt the most vulnerable beneficiaries of social programs.
Estimates of American poverty vary widely, and experts have a range of measures to assess who counts as poor.
Some moderate Republicans see the Trump administration’s new messaging as a welcome nod to the role that social programs have played in reducing poverty, as well as a concession to the realities of governing.
“It’s different than the previous rhetoric that says all government efforts to reduce poverty have been a failure,” said Robert Doar, a scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute who was a commissioner for social service agencies under New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “And I think it’s closer to reality and more sensible.”
And some conservatives note that the White House advisers’ report, in some areas, remains consistent with GOP orthodoxy of having more Americans working rather than dependent on government help. The report says the gains from the expanded welfare state “came at the cost of discouraging self-sufficiency.”
Critics are skeptical of the administration’s new rhetoric on poverty and remain opposed to Republicans’ plans for addressing it.
“It’s an opportunistic frame to try to advance the same end,” said Suzanne Mettler, a political scientist at Cornell University whose new book examines Americans’ experiences with federal social policies. “It is ironic. For ages they’ve been saying it’s a failure, and suddenly they are trying to declare victory and call it all off.”