Minsky on the War on Poverty

Michael Stephens | January 10, 2014

Roughly a year after President Johnson used the occasion of his first State of the Union address to declare war on poverty, Hyman Minsky presented a paper on the subject at a conference in Berkeley. Here’s what he wrote:

The war against poverty is a conservative rebuttal to an ancient challenge of the radicals, that capitalism necessarily generates “poverty in the midst of plenty.” This war intends to eliminate poverty by changing people, rather than the economy. Thus the emphasis, even in the Job Corps, is upon training or indoctrination to work rather than on the job and the task to be performed. However, this approach, standing by itself, cannot end poverty. All it can do is give the present poor a better chance at the jobs that exist: it can spread poverty more fairly. A necessary ingredient of any war against poverty is a program of job creation; and it has never been shown that a thorough program of job creation, taking people as they are, will not, by itself, eliminate a large part of the poverty that exists.

The war against poverty cannot be taken seriously as long as the Administration and the Congress tolerate a 5 percent unemployment rate and frame monetary and fiscal policy with a target of eventually achieving a 4 percent unemployment rate. Only if there are more jobs than available workers over a broad spectrum of occupations and locations can we hope to make a dent on poverty by way of income from employment. To achieve and sustain tight labor markets in the United States requires bolder, more imaginative, and more consistent use of expansionary monetary and fiscal policy to create jobs than we have witnessed to date. …

The single most important step toward ending poverty in America would be the achieving and sustaining of tight full employment. Tight full employment exists when over a broad cross-section of occupations, industries, and locations, employers, at going wages and salaries, would prefer to employ more workers than they in fact do. Tight full employment is vital for an anti-poverty campaign. It not only will eliminate that poverty which is solely due to unemployment, but, by setting off market processes which tend to raise low wages faster than high wages, it will in time greatly diminish the poverty due to low incomes from jobs.

Ending Poverty_cover

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