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Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon B. Johnson kicked off what he called an “unconditional war on poverty,” launching government programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start.
In a statement released this morning, President Barack Obama said that because of those War on Poverty programs, working families have help making ends meet and fewer seniors are living in poverty.
He’s preparing to unveil the first five “Promise Zones” in San Antonio, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, southeastern Kentucky and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, to combat high poverty in those areas.
Meantime, conservatives argue that big-government programs have failed to substantially change the poverty rate in the U.S.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Well, today President Obama said in a statement, poverty does still exist, but millions more Americans would be living in poverty without programs like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and food stamps, that came out of President Johnson's war on poverty launched 50 years ago today. There's still a debate over who won that war. President Reagan once memorably quipped poverty did.
But now both Democrats and Republicans are planning the road ahead. Rick Klein is political director of ABC News, and Rick, tomorrow the president is laying out a plan to bring tax breaks and grants to places still struggling with poverty: San Antonio, parts of Kentucky, we're hearing. But the debate has always been about the role the government would play. It feels like that's heating up again.
RICK KLEIN: It is very much, and what's interesting about it is that both sides are engaged in it. They have very different takes on whether the war on poverty led by LBJ 50 years ago, that unconditional war, has been successful or not, and whether government should have a larger or smaller role in it. But what's interesting is that both parties are seeing the political potency of this issue, and they are engaged full-bore on issues of income inequality, of combating poverty, finding solutions, and I think it's going to be one of the dominant themes of 2014.
YOUNG: Well, and let's start with the president and the Democrats. Liberals are wondering if President Obama is going to call his plan a war on inequality.
KLEIN: That's right, and I think he's going to come under a lot of pressure to go bolder, to go deeper. We already know that he just signed a budget agreement that didn't include an extension to unemployment insurance benefits for the long-term unemployed. He is pushing to see that happen now in the new year.
He's pushing on the minimum wage. But there are a lot of folks inside his party, kind of the remnants of the Occupy movement and empowerment and anger that's out there around income inequality. He's been talking recently about the growth in inequality over the last couple years.
Of course he's been president for five of those years. So I think he's under some pressure even from his left to go further, to go bolder, go deeper, knowing of course that the political situation in Congress would suggest that not a lot can get done.
YOUNG: Well, I'm sure some people in the Occupy movement are saying they helped get this issue on the table. But looking at the Republicans, in his morning briefing today, Republican House Speaker John Boehner was asked by a reporter whether it was appropriate to have Florida Republican Steve Southerland, who has led the fight against food stamps, take the lead on the GOP response to the war on poverty, which he is. Let's listen.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Is that appropriate? Is that the kind of message and the face you want...
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: Well, I think Mr. Southerland has a deep desire to deal with the issue of poverty. And when you look at the issue of poverty, obviously there are lots of facets to it. But one solution that we all know works is a job.
YOUNG: So Rick Klein, where are Republicans on this? Robert Costa, political reporter at the Washington Post, tweeted this morning about a brewing debate in GOP circles over whether to mount a broad anti-war-on-poverty case or just focus on empathy and child tax credits and vouchers and at least an appearance of empathy.
KLEIN: You see the divide play out even in the votes this week, with some Republican senators crossing party lines on unemployment insurance. There's a divide also on whether this is potentially a politically winning issue for Republicans. Poorer voters tend not to vote at all, and to the extent that they do vote, more likely to be Democrats on economic issues.
So the idea that there is a lot of - a lot of ground to be made up in terms of trying to appeal to anti-poverty measures is not something that Republicans traditionally have been comfortable with, but - although there's a larger number of them that are citing Jack Kemp in some of their appeals right now.
And I think the fact that some 2016 contenders like Marco Rubio, like Paul Ryan, even Rand Paul, are talking about the issue, suggests that they realize that this is a big issue in American not just for Republicans and Democrats but for all voters.
YOUNG: And remind us, citing the late Jack Kemp, that means...
KLEIN: Well, that means it's a more nuanced vision of what it means to have the classic Reagan trickle-down economics. And I think Jack Kemp has been - was a champion of a more empowered poorer voter or poorer resident, and I think particularly Paul Ryan in a lot of what he has said and done over the years, I think he got eclipsed by the Romney campaign and the 47-percent comments, but he believes strongly that there is an obligation to help people at the bottom of the economic scale and to find ways, conservative ways, personal empowerment ways, to take care of people that are less fortunate in terms of their finances.
YOUNG: Well, but meanwhile we also have a speech today from Florida Senator Marco Rubio in the LBJ Room on Capitol Hill, saying isn't it time to declare big government's war on poverty a failure. So not yet one organized voice coming out of the GOP. Rick Klein, political director of ABC News, on this, again the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's war on poverty, with a lot of benefits, debatable or not, that people, a lot of people, enjoy. Rick, thanks so much.
KLEIN: Thank you.
YOUNG: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.