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50 Years Later, War on Poverty Wages On

Kalia Abiade • Jan 08, 2014

President Lyndon B. Johnson, on the porch of Tom Fletcher’s cabin in Martin County, KY., 1964


This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. … It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.

– President Lyndon B. Johnson

January, 8, 1964

Today marks 50 years since President Johnson issued a formal declaration to end poverty in the United States during his State of the Union address. Said to be in the spirit President Kennedy’s Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Johnson administration sought out to address the roots and consequences of being poor.

Today’s anniversary — coupled with a struggling current-day economy — puts a special focus on our nation’s efforts to deal with the enduring challenge of poverty, with some politicians and observers declaring Johnson’s war either a success or a failure. 

Arguing either point, though, seems immaterial with the official poverty rate at about 16 percent of the total population — 27 percent for Black and Hispanic individuals. Additionally, 1.3 million laid-off workers have been without jobs for more than six months, with nearly 2 million more quickly approaching that mark.

This is a battle we should still be vigorously fighting.

Yesterday, President Obama urged Congress, particularly the reluctant Right, to extend expired unemployment benefits for these workers as they continue to look for jobs. He also attempted to refute the naysayers who seem intent on taking issue with poor people instead of poor policy.

“The long-term unemployed are not lazy. They’re not lacking in motivation,” Obama said. “They’re coping with the aftermath of the worst economic crisis in generations.”

Too many Americans suffer from enduring and increasing precarity, with compounding impacts on communities of color. In addition to the prolonged unemployment crisis, many who actually do have jobs are not paid enough; migrant and refugee workers can claim few protections; and food assistance benefits hang in the balance.

A key component of Johnson’s agenda was the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which Congress passed with bipartisan support. The act paved the way for many federally supported programs still in place today including Medicaid, Head Start, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Job Corps, the loans for rural families, and assistance for migrant workers and their families. These and other safety nets were and are not necessarily meant to be for the long-term, but they cannot be yanked away without something in their place.

This year, Congress is expected to address unemployment, the farm bill and immigration reform. As they do, lawmakers at every level of government need to continue — or start — to attack the extreme inequality at the root of the growing insecurity and not the people who are most vulnerable right now. As President Johnson stated fifty years ago, the so-called war on poverty was not expected to be quick nor is it one that has been easy, but it is a struggle we cannot afford to lose.

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