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 United States 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.
This was neither inevitable nor an act of God. It was the result of policy choices. Technology did not drive inequality. The powerful rigged the rules to benefit the few and not the many. Conservatives argued that the poor were taxing the middle class too much. In fact, the rich and the corporations cut the deal, and stiffed both the middle class and the poor. Few will admit it, but our leaders chose a society of greater inequality and widespread poverty — and we let them get away with it.
Johnson’s agenda still makes sense. Expand Social Security and Medicare to eradicate poverty among the elderly. Raise the minimum wage and empower workers to capture a fair share of the increase in productivity and profits they help to produce. Balance our trade so we make things in America once more. Invest in infant nutrition, early childhood education, and make poor schools the equal of those in more affluent neighborhoods. Target jobs programs for the young and for areas of significant poverty from rural Appalachia to our urban barrios. Guarantee affordable health care for all so that illness does not drive families into bankruptcy and poverty.
As President Johnson said 50 years ago, we are a rich nation, we can afford to do this. And, we’ve seen that he was also right when he said we can’t afford not to.