War on Poverty—Are we losing?

ECM’s New England Director MaryLou Beaver takes us back to the early days of 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson declared a “War on Poverty.” Below are excerpts of her article, including a quote from Johnson’s State of the Union speech. As you can see, many lines in that quote are as applicable today as they were then. Does that mean we’ve lost? I don’t think so, at least not yet, but we do need to get back in the trenches and bolster our national resolve to once and for all win this war we “cannot afford to lose.”

Fifty years ago this week, in his first State of the Union speech, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “War On Poverty.” Johnson’s declaration came just weeks after succeeding to the White House upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

“This budget, and this year’s legislative program, are designed to help each and every American citizen fulfill his basic hopes — his hopes for a fair chance to make good; his hopes for fair play from the law; his hopes for a full-time job on full-time pay; his hopes for a decent home for his family in a decent community; his hopes for a good school for his children with good teachers; and his hopes for security when faced with sickness or unemployment or old age.

Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope — some because of their poverty, and some because of theft color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.”

This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.

It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it. One thousand dollars invested in salvaging an unemployable youth today can return $40,000 or more in his lifetime.”

Making poverty a national concern set in motion a series of bills and acts, creating programs such as Head Start, food stamps, work study, Medicare and Medicaid, which still exist today. The programs initiated under Johnson brought about real results, reducing rates of poverty and improved living standards for America’s poor.

We have been hearing, and I am sure will continue to hear, legislators declare that the war on poverty has been a failure. But I beg to differ. That assumption is incorrect. The truth is that the percentage of poor Americans went down substantially in the sixties, from 22.2 percent to12.6 percent, a 43 percent reduction in six years. These programs were also adequately funded during that time, a critical component to ensuring success.

We also know that without many of the programs established in the sixties, the poverty rate would be much higher today. What has failed is our legislators’ determination to continue the war on poverty in a meaningful way.