Niagara Gazette

January 8, 2014

BRADBERRY: War on poverty, retreat or surrender?

By Bill Bradberry
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — “If we fail, if we fritter and fumble away our opportunity in needless, senseless quarrels between Democrats and Republicans, or between the House and the Senate, or between the South and North, or between the Congress and the administration, then history will rightfully judge us harshly. But if we succeed, if we can achieve these goals by forging in this country a greater sense of union, then, and only then, can we take full satisfaction in the State of the Union.”

— President Lyndon B. Johnson, State of the Union Message to Congress, Jan. 8, 1964

I remember the 1960s surplus food distribution lines outside the old Armory on Main Street; cheese, Spam, powdered milk ... I remember it as though it was yesterday.

It was exactly 50 years ago on this very day when a weary looking LBJ addressed a tired, frightened, weary nation; I remember it well.

We, the people were trying to comprehend what had happened only a few short months ago when President Kennedy’s assassination seemed to have signaled the loss of all hope for relief for the millions of people stranded in the abject poverty of the 1950s and 1960s.

But Johnson, ever the champion of the poor, was master of the mighty Washington machine.

He reignited our spirits by declaring “war on poverty,” focusing the nation’s attention on his ambitious efforts to end the problems perpetuated by the persistence of poverty in the United States, even here where the factories were slowing down, laying off ...

He managed to push through Congress his unprecedented agenda of massive antipoverty-legislation between 1964 and the 1966 congressional elections like these, to name a few:

• The Economic Opportunity Act (1964)

• Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO)

• Job Corps

• Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA)

• Upward Bound

• Head Start

• Legal Services

• Neighborhood Youth Corps

• Community Action Program (CAP)

• Work-Study

• Neighborhood Development Centers

Many other initiatives were born out of “Johnson’s War” as he worked to build what he called the Great Society. Just take a look at this accounting of his efforts by Kent B. Germany’s, University of Virginia analysis published a few years ago. He notes that many of the programs still in existence today got their start during this time including, small business loan programs, rural programs, migrant worker programs, remedial education projects, local health care centers, and others. “The antipoverty effort, however, did not stop there. It encompassed a range of Great Society legislation far broader than the Economic Opportunity Act alone”. Other antipoverty measures included:

• Civil Rights Act (1964)

• Food Stamp Act (1964)

• Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965)

• Medicare/Medicaid (1965)

• Department of Housing and Urban Development (1965)

• Model Cities Act (1966)

Announcing his sweeping vision before Congress in joint session, President Johnson began, “I will be brief, for our time is necessarily short and our agenda is already long. Last year’s congressional session was the longest in peacetime history. With that foundation, let us work together to make this year’s session the best in the nation’s history.”

Said Johnson, “Let us carry forward the plans and programs of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, not because of our sorrow or sympathy, but because they are right.”

And carry them forward, he did, but as Ronald Reagan is reputed to have said nearly 25 years later during his final State of the Union address in 1988, “In the sixties we waged a war on poverty, and poverty won.”

There is the perception among many that Reagan was right as poverty is still with us. Consider this: the 2012 poverty rate was at least 16 percent, or nearly 50-million people, including 13-million children, that is far too many under any circumstances.

But there is also widespread consensus among many others that “Johnson’s War” succeeded; for example, today’s Social Security reduces the official elderly poverty rate from forty-four percent in the 1960s not counting Social Security benefits, to nine percent with them.

Of course, poverty still exists, in some form or another, it always will; given fair and equal opportunities, some people will continue to make poor choices which will continue to burden the rest of us.

In his book, In “The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives,” Sasha Abramsky, a freelance journalist and lecturer in the university writing program at the University of California–Davis describes American poverty today as relative, unlike the absolute poverty of India, for example.

In a recent interview with U.S. News and World Report he commented, “They literally have no food to eat. It’s a little bit more complicated in America because even though the welfare system is not very good, we don’t actually have mass starvation. So poverty in America is relative. And it’s about a lack of basic necessities and a lack of security, so an uncertainty as to where you’re going to get food, an uncertainty as to how you’re going to pay your most elementary bills, and it’s about a reliance on either very imperfect government institutions or very overwhelmed private charity.”

Abramsky continues, Even though we don’t have starvation, we do have an amount of poverty that leads to malnutrition that leads to a series of diseases that we don’t tend to associate with First World countries that leads to massively truncated life expectancy, and all but guarantees that from one generation to the next, poverty is going to be transmitted.”

Hopefully, this Congress instead of retreating from the challenge, will heed this President’s call to help build a bridge between today’s unprecedented Wall Street prosperity and the rising level of poverty nipping at Main Street’s and 50-million American’s feet.

There’s much too much at stake to surrender.

Contact Bill Bradberry