America loves to declare war. We used to declare war on other nations (the last formal declaration of war was by FDR on December 8th, 1941). Now, we just declare war on social issues. Lyndon B. Johnson gave us the War on Poverty in 1964. In the 70’s it was the War on Drugs. In 1980, Ronald Reagan challenged incumbent Jimmy Carter in what was a traditionalist vs progressivist political campaign and thus began what is commonly referred to as the Culture Wars of the 80s & 90’s. The Culture Wars were temporarily put on hold as a renewed wave of patriotism overtook Americans as President Bush declared a War on Terror immediately after the cowardly acts by terrorists on what is now simply known as 9/11. However, that wave of patriotism was quickly replaced by cultural war rhetoric during the presidential campaign of 2004.
Culture Wars are fought by politicians for political gain. The purpose of any cultural war is to draw attention to the issue to win campaigns --not to solve problems. These culture wars are fought over things like minimum wage, social security, health care, abortion, and education. Battle lines are dictated by ideology and not by personal experiences. Ideology is established at the national level by looking at the size of campaign donations or the impact on voter motivation, but it is sculpted and applied at the state level where ideological outcomes affect everyday citizens. Making matters worse is the current concept where your ideology is judged for purity of conviction and not whether it is applied for the benefit of society. The war on poverty is a prime example of how ideological purity means more to some than the benefit to others.
If you have been paying attention to any of the Oklahoma education policy lately, you might have noticed another type of War on Poverty. This is a silent war, but one happening just the same. This war is not a war against poverty, but a war against poverty. Yes, you read that correctly. Let me explain it another way. Oklahoma, along with other states with extreme far right leaning governments, has long engaged (and now joined by the Trump administration) in a war not to end poverty, but a war against the impoverished. There has been no formal declaration, just a constant landslide of economic and education policies aimed at hurting children who qualify for government assistance. Need proof? Oklahoma has had 6 straight years of reducing state investment in common education -one stat where Oklahoma leads the nation. Higher education has been cut 23% in the last 2 years. When I went to college state support for higher education was 40% and today it stands at 15%. Think of it this way; our parents and grandparents paid taxes to help send the majority of us to college and we pay it forward by cutting our own taxes so our kids have to foot their own tuition bill? Lawmakers have tried for years to siphon money away from public schools for private school tuition. Trump's first proposed education budget slashes 21st century grants and other after school programs, along with federal support for special education and Title 1. Who needs the most support in education? Kids from impoverished homes. Which programs are being targeted for cuts? Programs helping students in poverty.
This is much more than just paying less in taxes and more for services. Some services are priceless. Don’t you think any of the mothers of teenage kids who are addicted to drugs or bullied into suicide wouldn’t gladly pay more in taxes for social workers or mental health professionals? How about less crowded emergency rooms or better staffed veteran centers? How about school counselors who are trained to help students with everyday decisions like identifying a career or dealing with a problem? Counselors play vital roles within a school and are more than the “administration overhead” argued by those in the culture wars. Character education, bullying prevention, testing, scholarships, graduation, career planning, are just some of what they do for our children. Not to mention just being a good listener and building psychologist for students, teachers, and parents who need help. And it is not just counselors……kids in poverty need before and after school programs to help them and their parents who work non-school friendly jobs. Kids need teachers who pour themselves into their work and won’t let poverty be the issue preventing success. Kids need library books, textbooks, computers, internet, custodians, bus drivers, crossing guards, reading specialists, and classroom teachers who know them as people and not just another body crammed into an overcrowded classroom. Don’t let the ideologues draw your attention away from the solution by claiming educators just want to “throw more money” at the problem. Textbooks are more than money. After school programs are preferential over being sent home to an empty house. Teachers are much, much more than the salary that shows up on a financial statement-they are people who are trained to fight the war on poverty. The war trying to overcome poverty, not the war declaring it government waste.