FIFTY YEARS AGO, on Aug. 20, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act into law. It had already been a momentous year. The Civil Rights Act was signed in early July, ending legal segregation. Mississippi Freedom Summer was underway, with hundreds of volunteers joining in voter registration campaigns. The effort to overcome poverty was the next step toward economic empowerment.
The Act created 11 different programs, including the Job Corps, Neighborhood Youth Corps, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), and both rural and urban Community Action Programs. Collectively referred to as the “War on Poverty,” the programs were coordinated by the Office of Economic Opportunity. In 1965, Medicaid and Medicare were created to provide health insurance for people in poverty and the elderly, and Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act provided funding to school districts with students in poverty. It was the most comprehensive package of social legislation since the New Deal.
Results of the programs have been mixed, with the most striking gains for older Americans. According to a special report from U.S. News & World Report, “While the national poverty rate has ultimately fallen by 4 points since 1964, when the War on Poverty began, from 19.0 in 1964 to 15.0 percent in 2012, the poverty rate for people over 65 has plummeted by more than two-thirds, from 28.5 percent in 1966 to 9.1 percent in 2012.” But with the poverty rate still at 15 percent—46.5 million people in the country currently live below the poverty line—where do we go from here?
We are still in a period of high unemployment, and wage growth is stagnant for many of those who are able to find work. Issues of a living wage, child care, and disintegrating communities continue to need attention. Our economy is rapidly becoming more unequal, with a staggering concentration of wealth held by the very few at the top. All of these factors work against a serious effort to overcome poverty.
Politically, the mood is toward shrinking federal budgets rather than providing needed resources, and military expenditures continue to take the lion’s share of what is available. The National Priorities Project estimates that the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to date is approximately $1.5 trillion, with an additional $750 million for Homeland Security.
It brings a strong sense of déjà vu. By 1967, only two years after the start of the War on Poverty, Martin Luther King Jr. observed, “A few years ago there was a shining moment—as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor—both black and white—through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw [people] and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.”
Poverty doesn’t have to exist. Nearly 10 years ago, the faith-based antipoverty network Call to Renewal issued its “Covenant to Overcome Poverty.” The central proposal was that “Those who work responsibly should have a living family income in which a combination of a family’s earnings and supports for transportation, health care, nutrition, child care, education, housing, and other basic needs together provide a decent standard of living.” That remains the core of a solution.
But the question now, as then, is whether the political will exists. In his 1964 State of the Union message, President Johnson said, “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.”
Where is that will today? Fifty years later, the nation still waits for the war on poverty to be won.
Duane Shank is an associate editor of Sojourners.
Image: poverty word cloud, lculig / Shutterstock