From War on Poverty to War on Working Poor

This week marks two anniversaries. It's not only the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's declaration of the War on Poverty but also the 1,100th consecutive day of the Republican House of Representatives' refusal to vote on a single serious piece of jobs legislation.

These two anniversaries are a study in contrasts. Johnson's legacy symbolizes how government can be effective in empowering people to improve their circumstances. The House Republicans' anniversary, in contrast, reveals the tragic consequences of government failing to act.

As Congress sets its agenda for 2014, these two anniversaries illustrate the stark choice between fighting poverty and forsaking our responsibilities.

While some -- including Senator Rand Paul and Senator Ted Cruz -- are fond of calling the War on Poverty a failure, the facts beg to differ. When President Johnson's War on Poverty was fully funded in the 1960s, the share of Americans living in poverty fell from 22.2 percent to 12.6 percent -- that's a drop by nearly half in just a decade. By bringing billions of dollars to low-income schools, building infrastructure in poor or forgotten places, training doctors and social workers, and empowering low-income students to attend college, War on Poverty programs transformed America for the better. While many of these programs were defunded during the Reagan era, their positive impacts are with us to this day. Infant mortality fell by half. Social Security, which was expanded as part of the War on Poverty, continues to cut the portion of the elderly Americans living below the poverty line from 44 percent to 9 percent.

Contrast the War on Poverty with Congress' current war on the unemployed and working poor. By pursuing reckless budget cuts, forcing a government shutdown, and ending emergency unemployment insurance, Republican leaders are not only subjecting struggling Americans to needless hardship but putting a serious drag on America's economy. As independent analysts have shown, the fiscal cliffs, debt-ceiling standoffs, and budget cuts that have consumed Congress since the GOP takeover in 2010 have cost the United States an estimated $700 billion in economic growth -- enough money to launch a whole new War on Poverty -- as well as more than 2 million jobs. In the context of declining collective bargaining power, mass offshoring of American industry, and a historically low inflation-adjusted minimum wage, the impacts on low-income Americans have been atrocious. The consequences are ill-health, anxiety, homelessness, food insecurity, and lost lifetime opportunity.

With 50 million Americans -- including 13 million children -- living in poverty today and only one job opening for every three applicants, Republicans are finally asking how we can extend unemployment insurance in a fiscally responsible way. My answer is simple: It's always fiscally responsible to stop Americans from starving! Extending emergency unemployment insurance would not only protect struggling families but also boost consumption, leading to an additional 200,000 jobs in the coming year. Passing a serious employment agenda -- like the American Jobs Act of 2013 -- would create up to 2 million more jobs, ultimately boosting the tax base, reducing the debt, and eliminating the need for government assistance. A serious bipartisan jobs bill would not only increase needed public investment but also empower people to fill existing vacancies by closing America's growing skills gap -- the growing mismatch between talent, training, and employers' needs.

It's time to start honoring the successful legacy of the War on Poverty rather than continuing the failed experiment of austerity. It's time for Congress to return to its rightful focus: Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!