MONDOVI (MCT) — Two weeks after the nation marked the 50th anniversary of former President Lyndon Johnson’s landmark speech declaring “unconditional war on poverty in America,” a Republican senator from Wisconsin declared the effort a failure.
“Unfortunately, it didn’t work. It utterly failed,” U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson told the 18 people who attended his town hall meeting Monday morning at the Sunrise Inn in Mondovi.
To back up his conclusion, Johnson pointed to statistics showing the country has 20 million more Americans in poverty, the poverty rate has gone up and the rate of out-of-wedlock births has risen from 8 to 41 percent since the $16 trillion war on poverty began.
The official federal poverty rate fell from 19 percent in 1964 to 15 percent in 2012, when a family of four earning less than $23,050 annually was considered to be living below the poverty line.
While Johnson insisted he has compassion for single parents and doesn’t intend to judge them, he said the rise in out-of-wedlock births is a societal problem because it drives more poverty.
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In a recurring theme, Johnson blamed big government for the shortcomings of an effort that led to the creation of such core federal programs as Head Start, Medicare and Medicaid.
He cited the single mother who receives more government aid for having more out-of-wedlock births as an example of the unintended negative consequences of a well-intended effort such as the war on poverty.
“I don’t think you help people by turning them into dependents,” Johnson said.
Democrats said it’s unfortunate but not surprising that Johnson would attack effective anti-poverty initiatives such as tax credits for the working poor, food assistance and Medicare — programs they maintained helped seniors and working families weather the Great Recession.
“Instead of continued efforts to shred our social safety net, Ron Johnson and Republicans like Paul Ryan and Sean Duffy should join Democrats in working to address the problem of income inequality,” state Democratic Party spokeswoman Melissa Baldauff said.
“Increasing the minimum wage so that working families in Wisconsin and across the nation can receive an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work is a good place to start,” she said, “because ultimately a family-sustaining job is the best way to lift someone out of poverty.”
Johnson devoted two-thirds of his hour-long town hall meeting to delivering a PowerPoint presentation on the long-term fiscal issues facing the country. He said he has given the presentation to more than 10,000 people.
The message focused on the dangers of the rising national debt and too much federal spending, a rising share of which is devoted to entitlement programs. He said federal spending as a percentage of gross domestic product rose from 2 percent in 1910 to 20 percent today and is on track to hit 30 percent by 2035. It’s an unsustainable path he warned could lead to a government collapse.
“I’m incredibly concerned about what we’re doing to our children and grandchildren and how we’re mortgaging their future,” Johnson said. “I think it’s intergenerational theft.”
In a question-and-answer session, Tony and Dana Ammann of Luck expressed grave concern about the potential threat to American Indian tribal communities from the infiltration of radical Islamic fundamentalists.
The couple described rising tensions, including some incidents of violence, between Islamic Somalis and Indians in a Minneapolis neighborhood.
Johnson, a member of the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee, acknowledged that radical Islam is a growing threat to domestic security and urged the couple to report their suspicions to the FBI. He said he is more alarmed by terrorism threats from homegrown and immigrant groups than he is about much-publicized privacy concerns related to the National Security Agency collecting telephone records and other data about ordinary Americans.