Fifty years ago President Lyndon B. Johnson asked Sargent Shriver to lead his “War on Poverty.” Sarge understood the scope of this ambitious undertaking. He explained that “if the War on Poverty means anything, it is a statement that we must look, not just to the poor–but to the whole cloth too–and even to the loom. The whole fabric of our society must be rewoven, and the patterns we must weave are patterns of justice, opportunity, dignity, and mutual respect.”
In 1964, Americans had a powerful can-do spirit about what could be accomplished through a collective national effort. They had seen the country conduct major public works projects to provide employment during the Depression, bring electricity to the countryside, win a world war, rebuild Europe, confront the Soviet threat, and commit to an effort to reach the moon. Revelations about Appalachian and inner-city poverty had shocked a self-satisfied country lulled by the 1950s-era image of suburban prosperity. After President John Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson sensed the country and Congress were ready to follow through on Kennedy-inspired initiatives. Johnson seized the moment to declare a national, tax-supported, multi-pronged War on Poverty.
America is a different place now. We have gone through Viet Nam and Watergate and many other episodes that drained confidence in government. President Reagan led an ascendant conservatism devoted in large part to undermining public confidence in government. A newer wave of conservative ideology blames the poor and resists public efforts to address poverty; it sees such efforts as affronts to the personal freedom of those with wealth whose tax dollars might support those efforts.
The War on Poverty declared by Johnson and overseen by Shriver has brought dignity and hope to countless millions of Americans. According to the experts, without federal anti-poverty programs the current poverty rate would be 26 percent, not 16 percent (the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which takes into account non-cash benefits such as food stamps and tax credits for working families). Infant mortality rates have plummeted, malnutrition has all but disappeared, and there are no longer parts of Appalachia that are without electricity and indoor plumbing.
Still, few would say that we have succeeded in reweaving the fabric of our society with patterns of justice, opportunity, dignity and mutual respect. Rather, a significant portion of the body politic shrugs off any collective responsibility for poverty and categorically opposes any tax-supported public campaign to address poverty. This has played out in recent weeks in the House of Representatives’ attempt to slash funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps), which lifts 4 million Americans out of poverty annually, and now in their efforts to end extended unemployment benefits, which would drive millions more into poverty.
Nevertheless, at this 50th anniversary of the declaration of the War on Poverty, hopeful signs of change are on the horizon. The Affordable Care Act is the most significant anti-poverty measure enacted since the War on Poverty, bringing the promise of health insurance coverage to 50 million uninsured Americans. There is a growing crescendo of concern about what President Obama recently called “the defining challenge of our times,” the “dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility” in our society, which he said “pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream” and “our way of life.”
Still, more than one in every five children are poor, violence plagues our neighborhoods, and the most vulnerable among us, including the mentally ill, the developmentally disabled, and the substance addicted, do not get the help and support they need. Programs with demonstrated cost effectiveness in creating ladders of opportunity such as universal preschool, college aid, and child care assistance are underfunded. There is still much work to be done. Our leadership must continuously take on the challenge of ending poverty, and deliver a consistent message of mutual responsibility and collective effort, that provides a basic level of support and real opportunities to advance for all Americans.
John Bouman is president and Dan Lesser is director of Economic Justice at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law in Chicago.