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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

The War on Poverty

Our publisher, Patrick Manteiga, long ago removed the vowels from Marco Rubio’s name, calling the Miami Republican “Mark Rub” because of his failure to identify with other Hispanics. I agree, and more so this week than ever. The temerity of the guy! The absolutely unmitigated arrogance that he demonstrated in his press conference denouncing the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty! That effort began with Lyndon Johnson’s State of the Union speech in January 1964. Marco wasn’t born until 1971, and then to Cuban parents who did not become legal citizens until 1975. What could he possibly know about the War on Poverty in the 1960s?

I am a veteran of that war, and I know from personal experience that great swaths of us won the War on Poverty. I grew up in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, where there were many hard-working but genuinely poor people – including (and even especially) white people whose families had lived in the South for generations. Yet we endured real poverty, sometimes not having the dime that school lunches cost. Especially in the late spring, before summer gardens were ready, some people did not have enough to eat. And this was past the mid-point of the twentieth century.

Many of those people, including some still alive today, have conveniently forgotten how impoverished we were in our youth, but we were in fact poor by any measurement. For example, just one of my half-dozen closest friends – the girls with whom I enjoyed slumber parties – had a bathroom that had been built as part of her house. All of the others used outhouses or unheated lean-tos added later, and we placed washtubs close to wood stoves for baths on Saturday nights. My dad arranged running water for us, but many of my friends’ families pulled their water in buckets from a well. Again, this was in the early 1960s.

LBJ declared a war on poverty in 1964 because he was from Texas, and even though he married a wealthy woman, he never forgot his impoverished Southern roots. I shall be forever grateful to him and to his Democratic Congress, men who absolutely changed my life and those of countless others. Most of the members of Congress who voted for anti-poverty programs were not from the most impoverished states where oligarchy had reigned from the days of slavery, effectively enslaving both blacks and whites to generational poverty. These “blue” states still continue to support “red” states, which often bite the hand that feeds them, but Bill Clinton and I and others remain grateful that these Yankees and their federal dollars gave us a shot at the American dream.

I’m especially thankful for the federal bureaucrat who happened to be a patient in the hospital where my mother worked. He made the effort to ask about her family and to tell her that we were eligible for a federal housing loan. He helped her fill out the forms; we hired a carpenter who lived nearby; and I went with her to shop for building materials. At last, we had a home that wasn’t a fire hazard – for $32 a month. Long since paid off, that federal loan provided employment and sales opportunities in our community, and my sister lives in the house today.

I also remember clearly when Head Start became available, helping kids catch up with their age group in other states that spent more on education. Yet even some educators wanted to refuse Head Start funds, arguing that this would lead to federal control of education. Ala many Republicans today, they preached against “big government,” doing their best to keep the ignorant ignorant, especially in economics.

One of the War on Poverty programs was food stamps, snappily re-dubbed SNAP these days, but few people realize that it was created as much for agribusiness as for its users. Leonor Sullivan, a Democrat from St. Louis, had both her urban constituents and Missouri farmers in mind when she repeatedly introduced a bill to require the Agriculture Department to use food that was rotting in warehouses – everything from corn to cheese that the USDA bought to keep prices high for agribusiness. She filed the bill for years after her 1952 election, and it was LBJ who signed it in 1964. With the federal subsidy of food stamps to use at their local grocery store, millions of Americans, both urban and rural, had an adequate diet for the first time in their lives.

* * *

Marco Rubio says that if we have to such programs at all, they should be the province of state and local governments. I say, fat chance! Why would we even have a need if state and local governments were so keen to help their poor? Yet we still have old “states rights” Republicans here in Florida, turning down economic engines such as high-speed rail and expanded health care. Their economic catechism has proven wrong since the 1930s -- yet even the Tampa Bay Times gave credibility to the young Republican with roots in Batista’s Cuba and Nevada’s Mormons, using as its headline: “Rubio: War on Poverty Failed; Let States Take the Lead.”

Not only is “failure” a fact-free assessment of these programs, even a Republican spokesman said that his party was pushing this approach not because of empathy for the needy or even because of any potentially greater administrative efficiency – but instead because they’ve been losing elections. “If you look at the demographics of the country,” said this crass GOP strategist, “Republicans have a vested interest in getting more of these folks into the middle class because that helps get votes. What the party has been missing is some creative ideas.”

I’ll agree with that. Also missing: a heart. And brains, at least enough to figure out that poor people and stupid people aren’t necessarily the same. Rubio continued to demonstrate his brainpower, saying that he was opposed to an increase in the minimum wage because “raising the minimum wage may poll well, but having a job that pays $10 an hour is not the American Dream.” Just tell that to the millions who work for less. Just see how many of them decline a wage hike because it doesn’t live up to their dream.

Instead of raising the minimum wage, our junior senator proposed “federal wage enhancement” for low-paying jobs. In other words, don’t give the money to the worker, but rather to his boss. Use federal tax dollars to subsidize the already rich corporation that underpays its employees. Most of these companies hire part-timers to avoid paying benefits, but even if someone works 40 hours a week at the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, the hard math works out to $290 a week or $15,080 a year.

The inescapable bottom line is that, despite Rubio’s proposal for “federal wage enhancement,” the rest of us already are enhancing grossly inadequate wages. A recent study of the fast food industry showed that McDonald’s costs us almost $1.3 billion in public assistance to its underpaid workers, with the smallest such amount being $125 million to employees of Little Caesars.

And that says nothing about the uncollected revenue that these workers would put into the treasury if they were making enough money to pay taxes. And the products they would buy if they could afford them. We so desperately need to re-learn the lesson of the Roaring Twenties, the lesson that the business genius Henry Ford understood: if manufacturers don’t pay enough for their employees to buy the product they make, eventually the entire economy will grind to a halt.

The same applies to our now service-oriented economy: if a motel housekeeper can’t afford to dream of ever taking her family to spend the night in a motel, the American dream is dying. And the way to solve that problem is not to subsidize Marriott, but to pay adequate wages and let the worker decide how to spend her paycheck. That is individual choice; that is personal freedom and personal responsibility, and those are the attributes that we say we admire. As Jesus declared long ago, “the laborer is worthy of his hire.”

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Finally, I was thrilled to use the new Crosstown/I-4 link last week. I’ve wanted it since the 1980s, when I routinely dropped off my daughter for Girl Scouts in Brandon, rushed to the completed parts of the Crosstown Expressway, hurried through downtown streets to get to I-4, and then went on to the Westshore area for meetings of the School Board Citizen Advisory Committee at Jefferson High School. I so wished for a link from one high-speed road to the other – and now, much later, we finally have it. The road also will be a great boon to Ybor, as cargo trucks going to the port no longer will roar down its historic streets.

Please remember, too, that this construction was part of the federal stimulus package designed to pull us out of the crash of ’08, when Dubya was president. That federal spending also continues to help Tampa’s economy -- and addresses genuine transportation needs -- on I-275. And why shouldn’t help ourselves to this money? After all, a large portion of it comes from the visitors who clog our roads. We owe it to ourselves to invest in our future and theirs.

By the way, building I-40 was a big factor in ending poverty in the Ozarks. And the federal Corps of Engineers constructed a series of dams that made the Arkansas River navigable. Like the WPA money in the 1930s that built our treasured Bayshore, the world’s longest sidewalk, these programs work.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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