In May, the United Nations published a report critical of the level of poverty in America.
“The United States has the highest rate of income inequality among Western countries,” it said.
Earlier this month, the White House’s Council on Economic Advisors took a rosier view.
In a report touting a policy to impose greater work requirements on individuals and families receiving government aid through food stamps, housing assistance and medical insurance, the Council said the War on Poverty “is largely over and a success.”
The report uses a method to calculate poverty not on income, as defined under federal guidelines, but by consumption, which significantly lowers the poverty rates reported by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Then last week, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a candidate for governor in a fierce Republican primary runoff with Secretary of State Brian Kemp, spoke of his desire to cut poverty in half if elected.
The comments were leaked from a secretly recorded conversation with former primary candidate Clay Tippins, the latest in a string of snippets to reach the public in the closing weeks of the runoff campaign.
Cagle alluded to his impoverished childhood and being raised by a single mother struggling to pay the bills.
Kemp publicly criticized Cagle for his comments, suggesting his opponent was branding a big-government scheme.
“We have 25 percent of our kids today in Georgia that live in poverty,” Cagle told The Times. “We have over 40 counties that have 40-plus percent poverty rates that exist, so poverty is still a real issue.”
In Hall County, 13.7 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and that figure jumps to 29.4 percent within the Gainesville city limits, according to the latest census figures.
Launched in 1964 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the War on Poverty sought to increase government’s stake in public education and health care as a way to raise low-income families into the middle class.
Tom Jones, a Gainesville resident who was serving in the Presbyterian church as a liaison to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1960s, said he personally worked in areas of rural, white Appalachia trying to meet the hunger and housing needs of poor residents.
“The Gospel really calls for us to care about the poor,” Jones said. “We were addressing issues of those who were living in substandard ways.”
The War on Poverty produced some good results, in terms of expanding housing and educational opportunities, particularly for minorities, Jones said.
“For some, the legacy of the War on Poverty is that we had some changes, racially,” he added.
But to call it largely a success is “absurd,” Jones said.
“We thought we really turned some corners … but in recent times, I’ve begun to wonder,” he added, referring to race relations. “And the rich keep getting richer and the poor get poorer.”
For Jones, the War on Poverty’s failures are that it didn’t prescribe enough resources or support to lift up the poor.
For political conservatives, Johnson’s dream has often been decried as ineffective and wasteful of taxpayer dollars.
In his State of the Union address in 1988, for example, President Ronald Reagan said, “My friends, some years ago, the federal government declared war on poverty, and poverty won.”
Now, the issue of poverty has found a niche in the Republican gubernatorial primary.
Kemp’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment from The Times.
But Kemp said publicly last week that he supported reducing poverty through the private sector, with campaign surrogates suggesting the government’s role should be subordinate to churches and nonprofits.
Cagle, meanwhile, told The Times his anti-poverty plan includes drug testing and additional work requirements for “able-bodied individuals” receiving government aid to make it “very difficult for them to game the system.”
Cagle also wants to implement a new workforce retraining program administered through the Technical College System of Georgia, and expand educational opportunities for K-12 students through the College and Career Academy Network.
“We’re going to create an accelerator and we’re also going to expand those high-demand career fields,” Cagle said. “It is fundamentally built around getting them the skills and the knowledge they need to go into the workforce,” without the need for public assistance.
Cagle said he also supports continuing to offer tax credits to spur affordable housing development that have “proven to be very successful” while also expanding public transportation as “another meaningful solution for individuals that are in poverty.”