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Let Katrina revive the war on poverty

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Some 40 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson declared the War on Poverty. He urged Americans to come to the rescue of those who lived "on the outskirts of hope."

If it was a war, it was one the nation in large part lost. Last year, 12.7 percent of Americans fell below the official poverty line. That's up slightly from the year before and about the same as in 1968.

Today, many progressives and liberals hope the Katrina disaster will revive Johnson's poverty war. Many Americans were shocked and embarrassed by the horrific pictures of those - many of them African-American - unable to leave New Orleans because of their poverty, while the more prosperous - many of them white - fled in their cars.

"We may be at something of a tipping point here. It could be a teachable moment," says Michael Zweig, director of the Center for Study of Working Class Life at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.

"People thought they were secure," says John Russo, a professor at Youngstown State University's Center for Working-Class Studies in Ohio. But the redistribution of income and wealth from the middle class to the rich in recent decades, along with the shrinkage of health-insurance coverage and corporate pensions, has sharpened an awareness among many Americans that they "are one job away from poverty," Professor Russo says." If laid off, fired, or ill, they may quickly become destitute.

That risk applies to whites as well as to people of color. About 70 percent of New Orleans' inhabitants were African-American. In the nation as a whole, two-thirds of the poor are white.

What can be done to shrink poverty?

Job-creating economic growth is a necessity, conservatives and liberals agree.

"We have to reconnect overall economic growth to overall benefits for the people," says Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.

But history indicates that growth alone is inadequate to reach many poor.

"America has never been wealthier," says Sheldon Danziger, an expert at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Real per capita income today is about twice what it was in the early 1970s, he notes. Yet America's 37 million poor "still have difficulty earning enough to support their families," Professor Danziger says.


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