Reflecting on the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty
“Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope--some because of their poverty, and some because of their 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.” – President Johnson, January 8, 1964
Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson uttered these words in the 1964 State of the Union address, his first major policy speech to the nation following President Kennedy’s assassination. President Johnson’s “unconditional war on poverty” challenged Congress and the country to fix the pervasive and persistent problem of poverty in America. Out of this collective effort many programs – like Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, and a permanent food stamp program – lifted millions of Americans out of poverty and provided new economic and educational opportunities. According to a new study, these initial programs coupled with the expansion of pro-work and pro-family programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit have reduced poverty by nearly 40 percent since the 1960’s.
Yet, as we reflect on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, we must also redouble our collective effort to end poverty in America. With 15 percent of people, and 16 million children, still in poverty today, poverty is a persistent problem in our country. Whether it is extending Unemployment benefits or ensuring 47 million Americans can have their basic food needs met by SNAP, this Congress has consistently failed to provide the poorest Americans with any stability or support. It is time for Congress to restore unemployment insurance to 1.3 million Americans and provide our workers with a livable wage by raising the minimum wage. We must also strengthen and safeguard programs like Social Security and Medicaid that provide a safety net to our most vulnerable citizens.
As President Johnson said 50 years ago:
“Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.”
We must embrace this challenge set forth by President Johnson and not shy away from rebuilding hope in communities and families stricken by poverty.