Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Winning the war on poverty

   Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty and won. Johnson grew up in rural Texas. Around him, he saw the grinding poverty that made so many lives so difficult. As a young teacher, he hoped that someday he would be able to bring some relief to his poor students and their families.
    Years later, during his 1964 State of the Union address, Johnson raised that personal calling to a national call to arms. “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” LBJ knew how to use the levers of government power and he intended to do so in order to make life better for those he had seen struggle long ago.
    Not everyone believed in the war, not then and not now. Many of Johnson’s opponents were more concerned about the number of government programs than the number of poor.
    In 2014, there are at least 92 federal programs designed to help lower-income Americans. Many had their roots in Johnson’s War on Poverty. There are dozens of education and job-training programs, 17 different food-aid programs, and more than 20 housing programs. The federal government spent $799 billion on these programs in fiscal year 2012.
    More important than the size of the programs, however, are the number of retirees, widows, single parents, disabled, college-aged students and children for whom poverty programs—like Medicare, massive efforts to help students pay for higher education and federal aid to dependent children—mean so much.
    How do the anti-poverty programs work? The answer is very well. In the decade following the 1964 introduction of the War on Poverty, poverty rates in the U.S. dropped to their lowest level since comprehensive records began in 1958. The most dramatic decrease in poverty was among Americans over 65, which fell from 28.5 percent in 1966 to 10.1 percent today.
    In 2004, more than 35.9 million, or 12 percent of Americans including 12.1 million children, were considered to be living in poverty with an average growth of almost 1 million per year. A Columbia University study published in 2013 reported that without the social safety net, the poverty rate would have been 29 percent for 2012, instead of 16 percent.
    Johnson saw the possible in those students in his rural Texas classrooms. He believed that this wealthy nation could eliminate grinding poverty as a blight on society. That we have continued to try for the last 50 years may be LBJ’s greatest legacy.

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