A New “War on Poverty”? A Story of Policy Success, Frustration and Restraint

Alex Waddan

As President Obama entered the White House there was considerable speculation about the prospect of a “new, New Deal.” This speculation, however, rarely extended explicitly to the idea of reviving the centerpiece of the 1960s Great Society effort, the War on Poverty.1 Fifty years on from when President Johnson declared “War on Poverty,” President Obama was quite ready to talk about the need to tackle inequality, even citing President Theodore Roosevelt’s efforts as a precedent for action.2 Yet, the discussion was not often directly framed as an anti-poverty effort. This perhaps reflects how the problems associated with growing inequality had become an established meme in American politics, especially on the liberal side of the debate, since the early 2000s.3 Poverty, in contrast, remained a problematic policy issue with significantly less political resonance: And while there is a relationship between policies designed to reduce inequality and those aimed at reducing poverty, the two should not be conflated. Whatever the merits of raising taxes on the highest earners and regulating Wall Street, these moves were not directly going to reduce the number of poor Americans. While referencing the contrast between rich and poor, the rallying cry slogans of the Occupy movement were about the travails

A. Waddan (H)

School of History, Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2017

E. Ashbee, J. Dumbrell (eds.), The Obama Presidency and the Politics of

Change, Studies of the Americas, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-41033-3_11

of the 99 percent, which is actually an inclusive message, rather than the bottom 10 percent, which is often a relatively isolated and politically powerless section of society.4

In fact, the post-1980s Democratic Party has not often placed a premium on anti-poverty efforts. Indeed, perhaps the most significant campaign message related to the status of poor people developed by a Democratic candidate in the last quarter century was Governor Bill Clinton’s 1992 pledge to “end welfare as we know it,” which was central to establishing his identity as a “New Democrat.”5 In 2004 and 2008, Senator John Edwards, during his abortive runs in the party’s presidential primaries, did attempt to prioritize the issue of poverty, with an emphasis on the problems of poor inner-city areas. Early in the 2008 campaign, candidate Obama did respond to this challenge and pledged that he too would pursue policies to target areas of concentrated urban poverty, but after Edwards’ departure from the campaign scene this did not turn into a sustained campaign theme for the Illinois senator.6 In a television interview with PBS, after he had given up his 2008 campaign, Edwards lamented “Listen to political leaders in America today. They don’t even like to use the word. They are afraid to use the word poverty. You have no idea how many times I’ve heard, me, from political consultants, you have to talk about the middle class. You can say inequality, you can’t use the word poverty.”7 Obama’s reticence to speak directly about poverty continued into his presidency, with his language about the economy emphasizing the plight of the middle class rather than the poor.8 Nevertheless, the Obama era did see some policy efforts, such as the expansion of the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (more commonly referred to as Food Stamps), which did specifically aim to help those who were the least well-off. The purpose of this chapter is to look at the scope and ambition of the Obama administration’s policy efforts to address the problems of those still living in poverty in the USA, even if this was not done with the same rhetorical flourish as when the president focused on inequality.

The chapter will concentrate on public policy initiatives, and explicitly on those aspects of social policy associated with anti-poverty efforts as distinct from broader macro-economic policy. This will include an analysis of what happened to various programs targeted at those with low-incomes, including cash programs such as Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) and Unemployment Insurance (UI), in-kind programs such as Food Stamps, tax credits designed to help lower wage earners and services, notably public health care. To what extent did the administration attempt to use its levers of power to expand or at least maintain these programs in the face of the Great Recession? Beyond these existing programs, was there any significant innovation, either explicit or hidden, in anti-poverty policy?

In this context it is important to acknowledge the institutional obstacles that limited the scope of an anti-poverty strategy, be they Republicans in Congress resisting the spending requests put forward by the administration or the fragmented rules governing the implementation of programs on the ground. It is also, however, crucial to reflect on the continuing ideational legacy of the Reagan era, which had already seen a previous Democratic President, Bill Clinton, sign into law a welfare reform bill in 1996 that not only dramatically scaled down an existing cash benefit program aimed at providing relief for poor, single-parent families, but which was clearly animated by a set of conservative ideas that perceived welfare dependency as a cause rather than a symptom of poverty, with that dependency resulting from individual rather than structural circumstances.9 As its policy agenda unfolded, the Obama administration demonstrated an ambiguous relationship with the legacy of those ideas. As discussed below, the attempt to expand the Medicaid program showed a willingness to pursue policy change, which philosophically cast aside the distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor that underpinned the 1996 welfare reform.10 The change to Medicaid proposed in the Affordable Care Act would have the effect of restructuring existing institutional arrangements in a path-breaking fashion, even if the reform was not loudly articulated in these terms. In contrast, the administration did not break from the conventional wisdom with regard to efforts to provide income support for working-aged, low-income households. Policy here remained focused primarily on the working poor rather than those increasingly separated from the mainstream economy.11

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