On the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's declaration of the war on poverty, Sen. Marco Rubio calls the effort a failure. The facts suggest otherwise, yet the Florida Republican argues government efforts to help the nation's poor are misguided and undermine the American dream. The real failure in recent years has been in Congress, where Rubio and his Republican colleagues have refused to invest in programs that provide a safety net for the poor and the jobless — and better opportunities for them to become financially successful.
Rubio is right about one thing. In a video previewing a major speech he plans to deliver on income inequality today, he acknowledges there are too many families living in poverty. About 15.9 percent of Americans were living in poverty in 2012, and the percentage of Floridians living in poverty was even higher at 17.1 percent. The national numbers were stagnant between 2011 and 2012 and worse than they were in 2000, reinforcing that the nation's poorest have not benefited from the tentative economic recovery as have those at the higher end of the economic scale.
That does not mean the war on poverty that began a half-century ago has been a failure. With the help of the expansion of Social Security and the creation of Medicare in the 1960s, the poverty rate among seniors is roughly one-fourth what it was in 1959. The poverty rate among seniors is 9 percent, but it would be 44 percent without Social Security benefits. When economists count in-kind benefits such as food stamps, the New York Times reports, the nation's overall poverty rate has dropped from 26 percent in the late 1960s to 16 percent today. That hardly suggests that efforts to fight poverty, from an era when some of the poorest communities lacked electricity to the Internet age, have been a bad investment.
Rubio's sudden interest in helping Americans struggling to make ends meet is at odds with his record. He embraced spending reductions that forced cuts in Head Start, financial aid for college students and other discretionary spending. He opposes raising the federal minimum wage, supports deep cuts to food stamps and wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which needs work but makes health care more available for millions. On Tuesday, Rubio voted against allowing Senate legislation to move forward that would extend long-term unemployment benefits by three months. Fortunately, a half-dozen Senate Republicans joined Democrats in clearing the way for the issue to move forward.
President Barack Obama has pledged to focus on economic inequality this year. Rubio's speech is among efforts by congressional Republicans to avoid losing that debate among the elderly, women and minority voters. That debate also should continue in Tallahassee, where Republican legislators foolishly refuse to expand Medicaid to cover nearly 1 million uninsured Floridians. And it should continue in Tampa Bay, where new St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman pledges to refocus on providing more job opportunities in the city's poorest, heavily minority neighborhoods.
Taking individual responsibility for pursuing a good education, adopting a strong work ethic and seeking job training are all important to achieving economic success. But government should play a role in reducing poverty and ensuring all Americans have an opportunity to be successful. The war on poverty did not end poverty, but it has improved the lives of millions of Americans and there should continue to be smart public investments in human capital.