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Wednesday, Jul 23, 2014

'Great Society' left stagnant poverty

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I wasn't really surprised when Gov. Rick Scott signed a record $77 billion budget the other day. This is an election year, after all.

What did surprise me was how little Scott vetoed from the budget, only $68.9 million. Many local officials were disappointed, however, that $1.6 million of that was for St. Petersburg's 2020 project, an antipoverty plan to help the economically depressed south side of the city. It was one of the few Pinellas County requests that failed to survive the governor's veto pen. Then again, even if he had funded it, Scott isn't going to get many votes in the Midtown area.

“Clearly I'm incredibly disappointed,” St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said after hearing the news. “The whole plan is about reducing poverty and getting people back to work.”

And who could be against that? Very few of us, I'm sure, but since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, conservatives have viewed antipoverty programs with great suspicion. They point out that trillions of dollars have been spent with little to show for it except generational dependency. Many believe that programs for the poor are inherently poor programs. Reagan best summed up their feelings while campaigning in 1980 when he said, “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.”

This year marks anniversaries of two of the biggest government social programs designed to uplift Americans. One of them is arguably the most successful in American history. The other, depending on whom you ask, has been an unmitigated failure or still a work in progress.

Seventy years ago, Congress passed the GI Bill — officially, the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 — which always has been a beloved social program. Not only did it turn millions of battle-hardened men into the educated backbone of the postwar economic boom, it helped revive a housing market that barely had recovered from the Great Depression. It made college education available to people who had never dreamed of it. It created the nation's modern middle class and, by 1960, the veterans completely had repaid their benefits through the additional taxes generated by their higher incomes.

Fifty years ago, when the United States was enjoying unprecedented affluence, President Lyndon Johnson spoke of his vision of the future to the University of Michigan's class of 1964.

“Your imagination and your initiative and your indignation will determine whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth,” Johnson said. “For in our time, we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society but upward to the Great Society.”

Thus the Great Society was born, and its merits have been argued ever since. As The Washington Post noted in a story marking the 50th anniversary of Johnson's speech, “Virtually every political battle that rages today has roots in the federal expansion and experimentation that began in the 1960s.”

Johnson was a firm believer in government being a force for good, going back to his days running FDR's National Youth Administration work and training program in Texas. What he couldn't foresee was the explosion of out-of-wedlock births that started in the 1970s, or that millions of the nation's youth still drop out of high school. These behaviors, common in many poor communities, are not responsible solely for the persistence of poverty, but they sure haven't helped.

To his credit, Mayor Kriseman is not giving up on south St. Petersburg. He already had hired Nikki Gaskin-Capehart as director of urban affairs, and Kanika Tomalin as deputy mayor to oversee projects to help Midtown. Also, state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said he will try again next year for 2020 funding.

I wish them luck, but for any real change to occur, part of the plan has to include rallying the poor for self-improvement — finishing school, avoiding early unwed parenthood and staying out of jail. I don't know if there's a government program that can do that, but after years of studying why some family and extended-family members are doing well in life while others aren't, I believe that's where our efforts need to be.

In the meantime, the debate will continue on whether government is the problem or the solution when it comes to lifting people out of poverty. The GI Bill proved that government social programs can help, but it's the recipients of that aid who have to do the heavy lifting.

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