Outside of Augusta, it’s become increasingly difficult to find anyone willing to rally behind the War on Drugs. Forty three years after President Richard Nixon launched that war, it’s not hard to see that incarcerating millions and spending $50 billion a year has amounted to a failed crusade. But the mountains of evidence supporting that perspective don’t sway Governor Paul LePage, who announced last week that he’s ramping up Maine’s War on Drugs with an additional $2 million in state spending for drug enforcement (as opposed to prevention or addiction treatment).
Meanwhile, LePage appears eager to surrender another battle: the War on Poverty, launched 50 years ago by President Lyndon Johnson with the creation of programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Job Corps, and Head Start. Conservatives across the country have used the 50th anniversary of this “war” as a chance to declare it a failure, but it’s an undeniable fact that these programs have lifted millions of Americans out of poverty every year since their creation, while sharply reducing infant mortality, vastly increasing access to health care, providing job training for millions, and generally giving poor people in America a chance at a decent life.
Medicaid may be the most successful of these programs, and its current expansion under the Affordable Care Act is essential to fighting one of the major causes of poverty: costly health care. But instead of rallying to the cause, LePage is battling to obstruct low-income Mainers from receiving health care through the expansion of MaineCare, Maine’s version of Medicaid. Last week he called Medicaid expansion “sinful.”
Like his declaration of a war on drugs, though, LePage’s capitulation to poverty is behind the times. Ronald Reagan led the way long ago, telling reporters in 1987 that “in the sixties we waged a war on poverty, and poverty won.” The truth is that the War on Poverty was undermined by other wars as soon as it began, first by the mounting costs of the conflict in Vietnam, then by the conservative assault on the role of government in public life that began in the 1970s, and later by a War on Drugs that placed poor people in its crosshairs.
Considering that we essentially gave up on defeating poverty decades ago, it shouldn’t be surprising that the “total victory” Johnson called for in 1964 never came. About 46 million Americans live in poverty today, including 148,000 Mainers and one in four Maine children younger than age six. Newer anti-poverty programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit have lifted millions more out of poverty, but social safety-net programs (beyond health insurance) have accounted for just 12 percent of the federal budget in recent years, compared to 19 percent for national security alone. As these programs have become more focused on working families, they have gotten weaker for the poorest, causing an increase in extreme poverty. Recent cuts to programs like food stamps are trimming the safety net even further.
LePage, Reagan, and countless other critics of that social safety net argue that War on Poverty programs are intended to provide handouts to the poor as opposed to incentives to work. The truth is that the 1960s architects of the war were adamantly opposed to welfare and went to great lengths to design programs that incentivized poor people to pursue education and jobs. Since then, any approach perceived to depart from that focus or significantly expand anti-poverty measures hasn’t gotten far.