Keelan: Two lost wars — Part I

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Don Keelan, a certified public accountant and resident of Arlington. The piece first appeared in the Bennington Banner.

On Dec. 3, the Wall Street Journal noted, “Conventional wisdom is that Latin America is shifting away from U.S.-backed war on drugs. In April, longtime U.S. drug allies such as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos used the annual Summit of the Americas to call the U.S.’s 40-year Latin American drug war a failure …”

Over the last 100 years, America has been engaged in eight wars. Two of them, World Wars I & II, had clear endings — we were victorious. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan successful or not-so-successful conclusions, I will defer to the military and political historians.

However, among the eight wars, there are two we have definitely lost — the War on Drugs and the War on Poverty — the longest-fought wars America has ever been involved with. The War on Drugs had its official beginnings under President Nixon, in 1971. Albeit, the U.S. was deeply involved in attempting to eradicate illegal drugs decades earlier.

Also, similar to other wars the War on Drugs has produced its share of “casualties.” In this case, they are physically, mentally, emotionally and financially wounded — the drug users and their families.

Not unlike any other war, the War on Drugs has had tens of thousands of deaths. Mexico, a major arena for the movement of drugs in the past six years, has had 63,000 killings directly related to the drug trade — a statistic greater than that of U.S. military personnel killed in Vietnam or the Korean War.

Also, similar to other wars the War on Drugs has produced its share of “casualties.” In this case, they are physically, mentally, emotionally and financially wounded — the drug users and their families.

The cost in national, state and local treasure in combating this war is in the hundreds of billions. This figure does not take into account the cost of arresting, bringing to trial and the ultimate incarceration of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who helped perpetuate this war.

For years, Vermonters paid little attention to the War on Drugs — it was being fought elsewhere — not here. But here it is — being waged in every city and town — manifesting itself in robberies, residential, business and drugstore invasions. Leaving one’s home or car unlocked is a thing of the past. The illegal drug infestation has changed this once bucolic state. We mirror the rest of the country — on cost, casualties and incarcerations. The majority of those detained in the Vermont’s prison system are in fact incarcerated due to drug-related (and alcohol-related) crimes.

But it is not just one war we have lost it is two — the other, the War on Poverty, has lasted even longer — its declaration came from President Johnson, in 1964.

This war does not have big ships or planes engaged — it has programs — such as Food Stamps, Vista, Head Start and Community Action. It also has its equivalent to the Defense Department. The Office of Economic Opportunity — created in the late 1960s (it has since been folded into other agencies).

The casualties from this war continue to mount exponentially. One statistic alone speaks volumes: There are now upwards to 47 million Americans enrolled in the Food Stamp program — up from approximately 25 million just a few years ago. The number of Americans receiving Medicaid, fuel and housing subsidence has reached all-time highs.

Not unlike the War on Drugs, this war is being waged daily throughout Vermont. In Windham and Windsor counties alone, Southeastern Vermont Community Action recently reported:
“1,475 households received fuel assistance. 5,815 people received services from Family Services Case Workers; 238 households obtained free clothing and furniture…”

What is of even more astonishing is the fact that during the recent presidential campaign, so little was mentioned about either war, by President Obama or Gov. Romney. Why talk about losing propositions — their focus was solely on the middle class and the wealthy.

It would seem like the politicians had taken a page out of the late Sen. George Aiken’s book, commenting on extracting America from Vietnam, “Let’s just declare victory and bring the troops home.”

The recently held Vermont Democratic legislative caucus has established its priorities for the upcoming legislative session — focus on climate control, agriculture and heating fuels — propane and oil.

Is it possible that our elected leaders have given up on the War on Drugs and the War on Poverty? And if so, where does that leave us here in Vermont as the impact from both wars tears away at our basic fabric?

To be continued.


  1. Doug Hoffer :

    Mr. Keelan said, “The casualties from this war continue to mount exponentially. One statistic alone speaks volumes: There are now upwards to 47 million Americans enrolled in the Food Stamp program — up from approximately 25 million just a few years ago.”

    Those who receive Food Stamps are not casualties of the War on Poverty; they are beneficiaries.

    Indeed, I would say that they are casualties of other policies such as trade (huge job losses), a failed health care system (personal bankruptcies) and banking deregulation (foreclosures) to name just a few.

    Not coincidentally, the huge increase in recipients since 2008 is a direct result of the recession, which itself was the result of failed policies (and greed).

    In any case, I agree that in many cases anti-poverty programs have not succeeded in helping families achieve self-sufficiency. But let’s not forget that such programs have provided food, decent housing, heat, and health care to millions, half of whom are children and the elderly.

    So we should have a conversation about creating wealth in at-risk populations (as opposed to short-term income transfers) and some people are working on that.

    But the growth in poverty must be seen in context. Unlike the 1950s and 1960s when a rising tide actually did lift all boats, we now have the top 1% receiving the vast majority of new wealth. And tax policy favoring the wealthy has led to reduced revenues, which makes it tougher to pay for the necessary programs (i.e., staggering amount of foregone revenue because of the Bush tax cuts).

    I’m all for new thinking about poverty and wealth creation. But this will require a much broader focus. I wonder what Mr. Keelan will say in Part 2?

  2. I hate the phrase “war on poverty”. “War” implies an any action at an cost mind set, and that certainly has not applied to our various governments’ approach to poverty.

    War also is intended to destroy – not construct … be careful what you ask for.

    The simplest and most direct answer to high levels of poverty and the associated social services programs that come with poverty is (wait for it ….) A MINIMUM WAGE THAT ACTUALLY PAYS A LIVING WAGE!

    But the simple and efficacious won’t work for the rich and lovely and big corporations … their wealth and feeling of self worth and size depend on THEM getting the benefits of peoples’ labors. Those doing the labor are nothing more than commodities – things (not people – that’s for the rich and lovely and big corporations) to be pursued at the lowest cost possible.

  3. John Greenberg :

    There are many problems with Mr. Keelan’s discussion; Doug Hoffer and Rama Schneider have cogently discussed two of them.

    Two additional points.

    — The first picks up one of Doug’s: it is unreasonable to compare poverty statistics in the midst of an economic downturn — especially one as dramatic as this one — to those achieved during economic booms. When LBJ proposed the “war on poverty,” the economy was in the midst of America’s post-war economic boom. GDP growth was in the 4-5% range for many of the years of the 60s and early 70s, compared to 2-3% for the last decade or so. As both Doug and Rama point out, good jobs paying good wages are universally acknowledged to be a great route out of poverty for much of our population and that pathway is far more likely to be available in good economic times than bad ones.

    Second, however, it is important to recognize that many of today’s poor are from population groups that we as a society have decided SHOULD NOT work: specifically, roughly 20% of the poor are below the age of 18; another 9% are over 65.

    Another significant fraction of the poor are people with disabilities, some of which make working for a livable wage unlikely, if not impossible.

    In other words, even if everyone who could work does and even if every job paid a decent wage, poverty would remain an intractable problem for a substantial portion of the population.

    Finally, in view of the points all 3 of us have raised, any serious evaluation of the “war on poverty” needs to consider the question a good deal more subtly than Mr. Keenan. LBJ’s war, for example, clearly succeeded when it comes to the elderly poor: Medicare has reduced senior poverty dramatically from around 30% to around 9%. And as Doug points out, food stamps (and many of the other “poverty programs” were not designed to eliminate poverty in the first place; they are supposed to allay its effects, and are doing so today.

    Eliminating poverty SHOULD be a top priority of any civilized society, especially one as wealthy as ours. But Mr. Keenan’s discussion does not provide a good starting point for an intelligent discussion of the ways and means to reach that goal.



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