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Workers, the new poor

Suncoast News columnist

Published:   |   Updated: February 7, 2014 at 10:19 AM

This is the second of a three-part series dealing with the financial predicament of workers.

This year is the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Conservatives of course insist it’s been a failure because there are still poor people. This is not unlike tea party sweetheart Christine O’Donnell denying evolution because there are still monkeys.

But according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, poverty rates have shrunk from 26 percent of the population in 1964 to 16 percent in 2012 and without federal assistance the poverty rate would stand at 29 percent. That’s 42 million people, half of whom are children, who aren’t living in poverty today. Tell them the War on Poverty is a failure! The same is particularly true about expanded Social Security benefits and Medicare. Without them, 44 percent of seniors would be living in poverty instead of 9 percent.

Crucial public programs like food stamps, earned income tax credits, Medicaid and CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, have resulted in a significant decline in poverty and a much larger decline in extreme poverty. Other evidence demonstrates lower-income Americans are healthier, better educated and better nourished than they were in the 1960s. It should be noted the official poverty rate does not always account for the impact of all anti-poverty measures, including the earned-income tax credit.

But the face of poverty is different than it was 50 years ago, as members of the middle class and working poor whose income has been stagnant for 30 years because of management tactics have joined what we traditionally think of as the entrenched poor in requiring public assistance.

Enter Florida Senator Marco Rubio, deciding he has a better solution to solving intractable poverty and shrinking government: Redirect funds to the states and let them deal with it.

Now does he mean those same 36 states that refused to open state-run exchanges to provide, in many cases, low-cost federally subsidized health care? Or the 20 states that rejected federal money to expand Medicaid? Or Florida, which couldn’t bother to fix its unemployment benefits snafu until the feds stepped in? Or the Red States whose congressional representatives denied extending emergency unemployment benefits and oppose increasing the minimum wage to $10.10, which could help 17 million people?

We know how states like Oklahoma and Alabama dealt with poverty in the past — buying bus tickets to New York and California for welfare recipients.

Remember during the Republican debates when Rep. Ron Paul was asked by the moderator what would you do with a sick person without insurance, let him die? And the audience cheered. These are the folks to whom Rubio wants to turn over the welfare of the sick, unemployed, disabled, elderly and downtrodden.

As a nation, we need to accept the moral imperative that every American deserves food, shelter and health care security as well as full educational opportunity — particularly those working Americans who are struggling to make ends meet in an economy stacked against them.