Editorial: To reduce poverty, we need new energy and new ideas

When you reach a milestone such as the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, it calls for some genuine reflection.

It won’t be easy, but it’s time to move beyond the war – and retire the name while we’re at it. Nonprofits and businesses, as well as government, need to bring new energy and new thinking to help Americans lift themselves out of poverty.

What isn’t constructive is to wallow in tired arguments over whether we won the war. House Republicans may win points with their conservative base to say that it has been an abject failure and that the federal government should dismantle its safety net programs.

They’re flat wrong.

The official poverty rate has dropped from 19.5 percent in 1963 to 15 percent in 2012. Yes, the actual number of Americans in poverty has grown by 10 million, but our population has increased much more.

Just think how much worse life would be without anti-poverty programs. We have to remember that before Medicare and increases in Social Security, many elderly Americans lived in squalor. Before food stamps, millions more families went hungry. Before Head Start, poor children began school even further behind kids from better-off families.

In California, safety net programs kept nearly 4 million residents, including 1 million children, out of poverty between 2009 and 2011, according to an analysis of census data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

Still, there is much work to do, especially since the Great Recession set back progress.

The poverty rate in California rose from 12 percent in 2006 to nearly 16 percent in 2012. More than 6 million people, including 2.1 million children, are officially poor. Nationwide in 2012, 46.5 million Americans lived below the poverty line, including 16 million children.

“The idea that so many children are born into poverty in the wealthiest nation on Earth is heartbreaking enough,” President Barack Obama said in an important speech last month. “But the idea that a child many never be able to escape that poverty because she lacks a decent education or health care or a community that views her future as their own – that should offend all of us.”

To mark last Wednesday’s anniversary of Johnson’s declaration, Obama pushed again for “promise zones” – areas in some of America’s poorest communities where job, housing, education and law enforcement aid would be targeted. The zones would get preference for federal grants and possible tax incentives.

The first five zones are to be in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Antonio, southeastern Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma. The premise does make some sense. Groundbreaking new research suggests that a metropolitan area’s economic layout plays a major role in determining whether the poor can climb into the middle class or beyond.

The president also emphasized his openness to any ideas. There’s no shortage. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, proposes giving federal money to the states so they could figure out how to reduce poverty. Maria Shriver, California’s former first lady, says we need to focus on helping and empowering poor women, as Susan Sward writes today in Forum.

More big government programs aren’t the answer, and we can’t afford them anyway. Long-term trends in the global economy and our society – the decline of blue-collar jobs and the rise of technology, for instance – make reducing poverty a steeper challenge.

Yet the response isn’t to give up. It’s to become even more committed. That is what our ideals tell us to do. That is what we owe to our fellow Americans.