The War on Poverty We Can't Afford to Lose
Jesse Jackson | 1/9/2014, 2:51 p.m. | Updated on 1/9/2014, 2:51 p.m.
Fifty years ago this week, President Lyndon Johnson, lamenting that too many Americans "live on the outskirts of hope," declared an "unconditional war on poverty in America." This will not be "a short or easy struggle," he stated in his State of the Union address to the Congress, "no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we will not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it."
With over 46 million in poverty today, including more than one in five children, Johnson's promise is mocked by today's realities.
But in reality, the war on poverty was initially very successful, reducing poverty in the U.S. by about 30 percent in the five years after Johnson's speech. Many different strategies were tried and worked.
Giving the poor money directly worked: expanded Social Security put more money in the pockets of seniors, reducing poverty among the elderly from over 35 percent in 1959 to 25 percent in 1968, to less than 10 percent today. Raising the minimum wage meant that low wage workers could lift their families from poverty.
Feeding the hungry worked: expanded food stamps dramatically reduced hunger. Infant nutrition programs have helped to virtually eradicate childhood malnutrition and reduce infant mortality.
Education worked: Head Start and federal aid to poor schools have contributed to dramatically higher high school and college completion rates. Targeted plans for the hollows of Appalachia and the ghettos of our cities worked: providing direct jobs programs, building health clinics, creating regional development strategies.
Johnson's war on poverty wasn't lost on the mean streets of our cities or in the dark valleys of Appalachia. Its first reverses came in the jungles of Southeast Asia, with the war in Vietnam sapping resources and attention. Its second came in the war of ideas, to the racial and corporate backlash that framed a conservative era.
Washington chose to go another way. The minimum wage lost ground to inflation. Workers wages stagnated as multinationals used globalization to drive down wages at home. Racial slurs were used to discredit welfare programs, and support for women and children was dramatically cut back. Taxes were dramatically reduced on corporations and the wealthy squeezing budgets for affordable housing, Head Start, impoverished schools, advanced training and more.
At the end of last year, Congress not only cut food stamp levels but ended jobless benefits for what will total 4 million workers and their families if the decision is not reversed. America is more unequal than ever, and ranks 34 of 35 developed nations (above only Romania) in childhood poverty, according to the most recent United Nations Children's Fund study.
When Johnson announced his war on poverty, America was a middle class nation, a global industrial leader, with a prosperity widely shared. But since the 1980s, productivity and profits have risen, but workers have not shared in the benefits. Good jobs were shipped abroad and replaced by low wage, non-union jobs at home. The minimum wage didn't keep up with inflation, much less increases in productivity. The gap between the possibilities for poor children of all races and those of the wealthy has been growing for decades.