Poverty, economic inequality poses problem


Jay Whang

Is it too much to ask for a decent place to live?
Is it too much to ask for a decent place to live?

In 1964, after the death of John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon B. Johnson stood up on the capitol and declared war on poverty in the hopes of increasing the welfare state of Americans.

According to the National Public Radio in an interview with Robert Caro, a Johnson biographer, the constant humiliation  Johnson faced during boyhood motivated him to fight against poverty. The idea to fight had been explored during the Kennedy presidency, and it quickly took shape under Johnson. When the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Walter Heller, asked “How fast do you want to move ahead with this program?” Johnson said to him, “Full tilt.”

Johnson’s real nemesis wasn’t the Viet Cong, but the gray poverty unfurling across 1960s America. He frequently mentioned the “war on poverty” during his presidency, emphasizing his own hatred of poverty ever since he was young. He gave a speech where he said, “[the causes of poverty may lie] in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live.”

Fifty years later, a statement made by President Barack Obama reflects Johnson’s first State of the Union address. Obama mentioned that “in the richest nation on Earth, far too many children are still born into poverty and far too few have a fair shot to escape it, and Americans of all races and backgrounds experience wages and incomes that aren’t rising, making it harder to share in the opportunities a growing economy provides.”

Last year, a debate raged regarding fiscal issues including, but not limited to, tax reform, food stamps, income inequality, health care and expanding social security. Congress fought over whether or not to renew Bush’s tax cut. Recently, the IRS became the number one target of the libertarian activists and most important of all, the government shut down over the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. During the government shutdown debacle, we got to see bribery within Congress, where the state representatives favored corporations over the people they represented. The federal government is not doing what’s best for the society, but instead receiving campaign funds.

In Reddit’s AMA, former Vice President Al Gore summed up the current state of today’s democracy and told internet users to act up already, mentioning that “our democracy has been hacked,” and that big money, anonymous donors and “corporations as people,” among other things, are all threats to our freedom.

While senators and congressmen aren’t listening, people, especially the middle class, have been steadily struggling without houses and jobs since the 2008 financial crisis. In recent years, poor Americans only have pocket change, while today’s middle class is barely distinguishable from the lower classes. Meanwhile, the one percent of today owns 40 percent of this country’s wealth, and 80 percent of populations are in possession of 7 percent of the wealth.

This augmenting gap between rich and poor became dirty enough that a Connecticut Senator, Chris Murphy (D), actually spent a vacation day with a homeless man named Nick to experience living at the bottom. Senator Murphy learned that Nick couldn’t get both a job and a house, and had to live in the shelter while dealing with his own drug problems. Senator Murphy is not the only one fighting against class conflict – his Democratic colleagues are along for the fight as well.

However, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders (I), a self-proclaimed socialist, recently made a statement that “You know, we have a strong ally on our side in this issue — and that is the Pope.” Many Catholics in the house were delighted when  Sanders, who is Jewish, mentioned their newly-elected religious leader, Pope Francis I. After his election, Pope Francis made himself an icon of 2013 (Time magazine named him “Person of the year”) when he outspokenly preached against trickled-down economics, calling it “a new tyranny”, and compared respect for money “worship of golden calf.”

His critique of capitalism bewildered many from the political right. Former Governor of Alaska and Tea Party leader Sarah Palin said the pope sounded a lot like a liberal (though she later apologized for that remark). Radio pundit Rush Limbaugh accused the Pope’s exhortation “a pure Marxism.” And right-wing news channel Fox News declared Pope Francis ‘Vatican’s Obama,’ ignoring the fact that he is still in stance with the Catholic Church’s views on abortion and gay marriage. Many from the left, including non-Catholics and irreligious alike, embraced his message on tolerance and equality.

Economists, like Nobel-prize laureate Paul Krugman of The New York Times, have come to the realization that income inequality is distorting U.S. economics. “There are reasons to believe that high levels of inequality do makes a worse society,” Krugman said to the reporter. “They need to reduce a social cohesion in a lot of ways, they need to increase stress. That’s rough fully speaking unhealthy to be as unequal to the economy.”

Krugman suggested that the government shouldn’t cut programs like food stamps for the poor and increasing taxes for the rich. With the support of the conservative religious leader of the world’s largest Christian denomination, many political activists see the light from the tunnel, hoping to escape the woes of plutocracy. This year will be the renewal of Johnson’s war on poverty and the beginning of the long path to fulfilling his childhood ambition.

 By Jay Whang 

Do you think it is time for change?