War on poverty: mission accomplished?

State Sen. Andy Manar takes issue with Trump, Rauner on rural poverty

 President Lyndon Johnson shakes hands with a farmer on a rural poverty tour in the '60s. (Wikimedia Commons/Cecil Stoughton)

President Lyndon Johnson shakes hands with a farmer on a rural poverty tour in the '60s. (Wikimedia Commons/Cecil Stoughton)

By Ted Cox

President Trump's Council of Economic Advisers issued a report this week stating that the so-called war on poverty launched more than 50 years ago by President Johnson "is largely over and a success."

That will come as news to many people across Illinois, from city ghettoes to towns suffering job and population loss like Decatur to farm communities left high and dry.

"Poverty in Illinois unfortunately is exploding," said state Sen. Andy Manar as he sat in his Bunker Hill office. "I've seen it with my own eyes right here.

"This town is very different than what it was when I was a kid," he added. "I've lived here my whole life. And there's positives, there's negatives, like anyplace. But one thing is for certain. Poverty is taking over our small towns because of policies — policies both at the state level and the federal level."

As the title indicates, the Trump administration's status report on the war on poverty attempts to make a case for "Expanding Work Requirements in Non-Cash Welfare Programs." It's Trump's attempt to revive the old "welfare queen" myth espoused by President Reagan, among others, and since discounted by research.

Trump recently pressed for work requirements in Medicare, a position backed by Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner. But what that actually does is sew confusion and uncertainty in social programs — who's eligible? what are the expectations? — thus dissuading those who might benefit from even enrolling.

"Over the last three years with Bruce Rauner, it's the uncertainty that's been the thing that has really hurt — the uncertainty and the lack of planning, the lack of progress, the lack of having goals," Manar said. "That really has hurt us under Bruce Rauner. Same thing with Donald Trump. The uncertainty is what is the most negative factor right now. So it would help if the government got more stable."

IMG_0412.jpg

"Poverty is taking over our small towns because of policies — policies both at the state level and the federal level."

State Sen. Andy Manar (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Manar pointed out that, in spite of periodic attacks on what's termed the "social safety net," programs exist in cities to find housing for the homeless and jobs for the unemployed. What's more, a town like Decatur might go through economic crests and troughs, but it has resources like public transportation and a skilled workforce that help it weather downturns and recover. That's not necessarily the case in rural communities.

"There is no playbook yet" for dealing with rural poverty, Manar said. "When issues come up that are related directly to poverty, there are avenues in the community. There's capacity to address homelessness or someone who doesn't have food, right? Or doesn't have transportation."

A question for President Trump's Council of Economic Advisers: How do you compel someone to work who lives in the country, doesn't have a car, and doesn't have a bus to catch to even get to a job?

"When it comes to small towns, there is no playbook," Manar added. "In the distance and the geography, we haven't figured that out yet. And there's a whole lot of people and a whole lot of rural communities that are really struggling economically."

Manar cited how mental-health programs, for example, are present in cities, but rarely extend into the country. "We have entire counties that don't have a single birth-to-3 program (for child care) and public-school Head Starts," he said. "We have entire communities that don't have a food pantry because the capacity just isn't there to do it. So addressing rural poverty is going to be a big challenge for us, I think in the future, because we haven't quite figured out the best playbook to do that."

It's worth nothing that Manar's own Bunker Hill school district is one of the dozens across the state that recently had their Early Childhood Block Grant discontinued by Rauner's state Board of Education in yet another example of chaos in social programs.