Opinion: Carolina Journal Opinions

Abramsky: ‘War on Poverty’ Failed, So Let’s Do It All Over Again

• Sasha Abramsky, The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives, Nation Books, 2013, 355 pages, $26.99.

RALEIGH — Sasha Abramsky’s The American Way of Poverty is being hailed as the second coming of The Other America, the 1962 book by the late socialist Michael Harrington that influenced presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Abramsky’s target is Barack Obama, who “understands the impact of poverty on people’s lives better than almost any other of his predecessors.” But for British-born Abramsky, a senior fellow at the Demos think tank, the president may not be up to the task.

In the early going, Abramsky writes, Obama did a good job protecting what remained of safety net, but he has not protected the “long-term poor” from budget cuts. This “failure to get a handle on poverty represented a lack of willingness on the part of Obama’s inner circle, many of whom were avowed moderates who had cut their teeth during the Clinton years.” In Abramsky’s view, the task requires a more militant approach, nothing less than a “War on Poverty Mark II,” which the author says can succeed.

The stories he chronicles of accredited victims, accompanied by Dorothea Lange-style photos, would seem to confirm that LBJ’s War on Poverty was a loser. The author concedes that the war “failed,” but has an explanation. The war brought poverty center stage “but technocrats took control,” and they set about “reducing a massive moral conundrum — poverty amidst plenty — into a set of scientific and statistical data. Once that occurred, the energy was sucked out of the process.” None of that for the War on Poverty Mark II, because General Abramsky knows the enemy: the anti-tax, anti-government movement that has managed to convince people “that taxes are a mugging rather than an investment.” It comes as no surprise that the new war’s strategic weapon is higher taxes.

A flat tax may sound “superficially fair” but “in reality tax systems work best when they are steeply progressive.” Abramsky wants “targeted, sensible, fair tax increases: raising the capital gains tax, increasing the income tax on the wealthiest Americans, eliminating the upper limit for Social Security contributions, reintroducing an oil windfall profit tax, creating a viable financial transactions tax and imposing estate taxes on large inheritances,” at punitive rates like those charged in England and Germany. And the author, a part-time lecturer in the University Writing Program at the University of California-Davis, offers this collector’s item: “We un-starve the beast that Grover Norquist’s acolytes have spent three decades gratuitously depriving of nutrients.”

It won’t do merely to protect “existing programs.” Welfare systems “work best when they expand automatically during economic downturns.” Those technocrats may have bugled LBJ’s War on Poverty, but now, “We have the knowledge and the technological wherewithal to create flexible, fast-responding, non-punitive, counter-cyclical welfare programs.” These would presumably work as models of efficiency and the “steeply progressive” tax would pay for it all. The author praises the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, so it’s likely he would champion new federal agencies to supervise the campaign. We doubtless could expect more massive federal entitlement programs, even if the current ones are unsustainable and leave the nation fathomless trillions in debt.

Abramsky does more than think inside the box, however, conceding that there are people who are poor because they have made bad choices. Of course, if they fail to get back on their feet it’s only because of budget cuts in government drug rehab programs, welfare, or food stamps. He cites the policies of “ultraconservative states such as Mississippi,” but finds no ultraliberal states.

Abramsky also laments that America’s “leadership class” began a long march away from redistributive liberalism, but it wasn’t all their fault. America’s progressives “fell victim to a McCarthyite political culture that denounced comprehensive federal safety net systems as being somehow ‘Communist.’” The author provides no discussion of how actual Communist states fared economically with their “leadership class” in charge of everything. Abramsky dismisses F.A. Hayek as a “free-marketer” while failing to engage the arguments in The Road to Serfdom. So the bold prophet of social justice comes up short on intellectual courage.

If this book had appeared in the 1930s, his model would have been the USSR. For Abramsky the closest thing to an ideal state is Sweden, darling of the ‘60s left, where they love high taxes and supposedly get the most for their money. It’s not like that in America, and the author’s problems with his adopted nation run deep. For example, “What if the political rights enshrined in the Constitution aren’t always in harmony with the economic rights so embedded in the country’s psyche?” Readers will want to think about that one.

The American Way of Poverty provides no clue that government can be wasteful, corrupt, or abusive. The author includes no stories of entrepreneurs harmed by predatory government regulators, businesses seized under eminent domain, or abuses of Americans’ constitutional rights by the IRS, EPA, CIA, or NSA. Readers will find no guidance about how wealth is actually created, but they should still be grateful to Sasha Abramsky for his candor.

He confirms that the War on Poverty was a failure while wanting Barack Obama to do it all again — only more so. Abramsky may well get his new war, but it is certain to fail, with much collateral damage. Meanwhile, The American Way of Poverty will endure as the Dead Sea Scrolls of statist fundamentalism.

Lloyd Billingsley is a contributor to Carolina Journal.