This January marked the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, an idea set forth by President Lyndon B. Johnson in his 1964 State of the Union Address.
As he stood before a joint session of Congress, the 1960’s were already shaping up to be a time of radical and far reaching changes. Movements were springing up around civil rights, LGBT rights, feminism and a host of other issues. Many of the social problems haunting the country were made even clearer in the light of longstanding economic injustices suffered by disenfranchised segments of the American populace. It was in this context that the President declared “unconditional war on poverty in America.”
Specifically, Johnson’s declaration was an appeal to the nation’s lawmakers – a call for legislation designed to attack poverty with renewed vigor by addressing employment, education, housing and health. In the abstract, it seems like such a simple and beautiful idea. Congress would help create job opportunities by allocating funding to improve schools and provide better training. Congress would fund programs to combat urban decay and infrastructure rot and to enact contributions to programs to protect senior citizens. And by creating safety net mechanisms such as a minimum wage, food stamps and unemployment insurance, Congress would help to ensure a basic standard of living for even the most disadvantaged households.
In short, Congress would use taxpayer money to invest in the success of current and future generations of Americans.
Unfortunately, this call for sustained and dedicated action has not reverberated through the decades. Some degree of fervor, sympathy, and social outrage was lost during the 70’s and 80’s. And by the end of the Reagan Administration, many of LBJ’s Great Society reforms had been cut up and transformed.
Now, fifty years after that historic speech, are we winning or losing the War on Poverty? Maybe it’s a war that can never truly be won, with no clear lines drawn in the sand and no real enemy to admit defeat. However, just take one quick look at the nation’s ever widening income disparity. Look at the slow rebound from the Great Recession, especially for low-income households. Look at the number of households reliant on programs like SNAP and LIHEAP. It’s clear that the root causes of poverty have not yet been defeated.
On January 8, 1964, the President Johnson’s words echoed through the House chamber. He spoke of “a unique opportunity and obligation—to prove the success of our system; to disprove those cynics and critics at home and abroad who question our purpose and our competence. If we fail, if we fritter and fumble away our opportunity in needless, senseless quarrels between Democrats and Republicans, or between the House and the Senate, or between the South and North, or between the Congress and the administration, then history will rightfully judge us harshly.”
So let’s ask ourselves, fifty years after the War on Poverty was declared, how will history judge us?