Johnson’s War on Poverty: 50 Years Later

Date: March 19, 2014
Category: News

During President Lyndon Johnson’s first State of the Union address on January 8, 1964, he committed the nation to a war on poverty. His call was based on the notion that all people should be given the same opportunity to achieve their life goals. “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.”

Fifty years and two generations after this monumental speech, many believe the nation is still at war. Yes, there have been some successes but the nation continues to struggle with poverty. At the time of Johnson’s speech, 1 in 5 Americans lived in poverty; today that number has improved slightly to 1 in 7. Obviously, there is still a lot of work to be done to win the war on poverty.

In the 1960’s, the largest group of people living in poverty were the elderly. As a result of programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, the elderly have been outnumbered by a new segment of the population, children. It is estimated that 22% of all children, more than 16 million, live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level.

Of great concern to those continuing to fight poverty today is that poverty reduction does not appear to be a national priority. Sure there are many organizations working to decrease the prevalence of poverty and provide resources to people who are impacted, and the nation’s leaders address poverty during State of the Union addresses and other formal presentations. But the fact that many programs designed to reduce poverty, including Head Start and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), have been cut from federal funding is detrimental to the anti-poverty efforts being made nationwide.

What can we, as a nation, do to end poverty? We could raise the minimum wage, which is about 30% lower than it was at the time of Johnson’s address (when considering inflation). We could provide low-cost, quality child care to allow single mothers not to have to choose between employment and caring for their children. We could continue to offer supplemental nutrition assistance programs to provide healthy food to low-income individuals and families. We could increase the availability of affordable housing options. We could make ending poverty a priority in our local communities and on the national level.

There continues to be debate on whether or not we have won the war on poverty. Based on his call to action and the programs he set in place, President Johnson would likely not think us victorious.

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