On January 8, 1964, a mere six weeks after taking office, President Lyndon B. Johnson stood before the nation to deliver his first State of the Union address. In his address President Johnson proclaimed that “This administration declares unconditional war on poverty in America. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it. For the war against poverty will not be won here in Washington. It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House.”
This statement affirmed many elements of President John F. Kennedy’s blueprint for a “New Frontier” and also supported the vision and aspirations of the late president’s brother-in-law and anti-poverty crusader, Robert Sargent Shriver. As such, the Office of Economic Opportunity was established and the Community Action movement was born.
The year 1964 proved to be a pivotal year in America. The nation was still in shock over the assassination of President Kennedy. The Civil Rights Movement was in full-swing as Freedom Summer swept through Mississippi and the Deep South, while racially charged violence plagued the North — first in Harlem, and later in cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago, and Jersey City. The conflict in Vietnam had started to escalate, and the Free Speech Movement was spawned in Berkeley and spread to college campuses across the nation.
At that time in our history, more than 35 million people — nearly one out of every five Americans — was classified as poor. Within the first 10 years of the War on Poverty, the poverty rate in this country fell by roughly eight percent, and 12 million Americans had escaped the shackles of poverty. During the rest of the 20th century, the poverty rate ebbed and flowed with considerable spikes in the number of poor Americans in both the early 1980s and early 1990s.
By 2000, however, the poverty rate had fallen to a near historic low before steadily rising again over the next decade-and-a-half. In fact, since 2000, nearly 20 million people have fallen into poverty, resulting in a total of more than 46 million poor Americans today.
Critics contend that this recent trend is evidence that the War on Poverty has failed. Still, many experts dispute this negative appraisal and argue that were it not for the War on Poverty, along with agencies such as Community Action and programs like Head Start, poverty in America would be far worse than it is today.
Several scholars have cited other critical factors that have contributed to the recent increase in poverty. For example, Dr. Peter Edelman notes that when adjusted for inflation, American wages are near their lowest point in 50 years.
Other studies call attention to the increasing income gap between the rich and poor. In January of 2014, the renowned anti-poverty consortium Oxfam International reported that the richest one percent of Americans accumulated 95 percent of all wealth generated during the previous five years.
After spending more than 30 years as a nonprofit executive in the Twin Cities, I concede that the War on Poverty is getting more and more difficult each year. As some researchers have observed, this increasing difficulty is in large part tied to stagnant wages and a gulf in income inequality that is spiraling deeper and deeper into absurdity.
It is also the result of dwindling investment in education, employment, and community development. And unfortunately, dare I say, the mounting challenges in the fight against poverty are due in many respects to what I fear is a pervasive and pernicious tolerance of poverty among far too many of our fellow citizens.
Yet in spite of all the hardships, obstacles and adversaries we’ve encountered in this fight, I too believe, like so many experts, that without the War on Poverty and the stellar organizations, community leaders, and dedicated soldiers it wrought, the situation in America would be even worse. The late Hyman Bookbinder, a former assistant director of the United States Office of Economic Opportunity and an adviser to then-vice president Hubert H. Humphrey, once wrote that “Getting people out of poverty is the most cost-effective public investment” that America can make.
This sentiment still rings true today, and we must remain steadfast in our efforts to eliminate poverty. The well-being of each of our fellow citizens must remain paramount in all of our lives.
Clarence Hightower is executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street, St. Paul, MN 55104.