Fifty years ago tonight, amid calls in his first State of the Union address to enact civil rights laws and reduce the deficit, President Lyndon Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty.”
He said, “It will not be a short or easy struggle. No single weapon or strategy will suffice. But we shall not rest until the war is won. The richest nation on Earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”
A half-century later, Johnson’s call to launch a full-frontal attack on poverty has taken on a particular poignancy, as many lawmakers are all too eager to hack away at the social safety net by, among other things, cutting off long-term unemployment benefits and gutting food stamps. The focus seems to have shifted from a war on poverty to a war on the impoverished.
The mere fact there is still poverty in this country is enough for some to suggest that the War on Poverty was a failure and that we should surrender. That’s foolish and short-sighted. While the approach to fighting poverty must be refined from the way it was carried out in Johnson’s day, poverty’s persistence doesn’t mean it’s something that should be tolerated, as if it’s an act of nature we all must shrug and accept.
First, it must be stated that the War on Poverty did help reduce poverty. In January 1964, for instance, poverty rates among elderly Americans stood at about 35 percent. Once they were unable to punch a clock, many seniors were left to lives of destitution. Thanks to increased Social Security benefits and the establishment of Medicare, however, the elderly today are among the least likely to be impoverished – in 2012, the poverty rate among the elderly stood at just 9 percent.
Malnutrition, once a scourge of pockets of the Deep South and Appalachia, was all but eradicated and infant mortality tumbled. By 1973, the year Johnson died, the poverty rate was 11 percent, down from 19 percent at the time Johnson became commander in chief.
Today, the poverty rate is 15 percent, with 46 million Americans estimated to be living in hardship, according to a 2011 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau. Young families are the most severely impacted, as are black and Hispanic families. Poverty seeped into once-prosperous Rust Belt cities that have been denuded of manufacturing jobs, with Reading leading the country with a poverty rate of 41.3 percent, followed closely by Flint, Mich., with a poverty rate of 41.2 percent.
Some policy tools are at hand that could help reduce this number. The Affordable Care Act, with its expansion of Medicaid and affordable health insurance, will almost certainly help improve the health of those with low incomes and decrease the number of Americans who slip into poverty due to debilitating illness or crushing medical debt. Funding for early-childhood programs would provide a boost for families, and if the minimum wage is raised to $10.10 an hour, as is currently being proposed, some estimates say it would reduce poverty by 1.7 percent. The current minimum wage, $7.25 per hour, has not been increased in almost five years. When adjusted to inflation, it doesn’t match the $1 minimum wage of 1956, which would be $8.57 in today’s dollars.
Improving the country’s educational system would help lift many out of poverty, as would a more dynamic labor market. Poverty is prevalent in single-parent households, so young people must be encouraged to delay starting families until after they are in stable relationships or married.
And renewing our commitment to fighting the War on Poverty doesn’t necessarily mean there will be losers in this battle. As Johnson himself noted in that speech 50 years ago tonight, “Our history has proved that each time we broaden the base of abundance, we create new industry, higher production, increased earnings and better income for all.”