It is time to declare war on poverty again.
Fifty years ago this week, President Lyndon Johnson said in his State of the Union address: “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 was a moment of great leadership and hope at a precarious time in history.
The war on poverty helped create Medicare and Medicaid.
It also created the Office of Economic Opportunity that started the highly successful and still hugely popular Head Start preschool programs across the country. In Chicago alone, it provided funding for 57 preschool centers to serve poor children.
It initiated food assistance and job training, and it launched literacy programs for adults. It spent more than $20 million to provide 50,000 young people with summer jobs.
It was a comprehensive and aggressive struggle that sought to touch every aspect of life for those suffering under poverty.
Contrary to the rhetoric over the years, the war on poverty was showing signs of success. When it began, the nation’s poverty rate was 17 percent. In 10 years, the rate had dropped to 11 percent.
But Congress gradually cut off funding for it. Poverty became entrenched again, and no such bold effort has been tried since that time.
A new war on poverty is needed today. The poverty rate is now at 15 percent. There are 46 million people in the United States still living in poverty. This includes 16 million children and more than 4 million senior citizens.
A new war on poverty should consist of the following:
First, job training for the jobless and educational opportunities for those lacking financial resources to go to college could help millions permanently escape poverty.
Second, temporary benefits such as the extension of unemployment benefits and food assistance could help families ride out these tough times.
And third, higher wages for workers would also allow them to escape poverty.
We can win the war on poverty. But we have to demand it.
As Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy stated in 1968 when the war on poverty starting fizzling out, the problem of poverty is “inseparable from the larger problem of democracy.”
Let us use the democratic power that we have, as citizens, to resume this noble fight against poverty in the United States.
Brian Gilmore is a poet and public interest lawyer. He can be reached at email@example.com. Copyright Brian Gilmore.