January, 8, 1964, and President Lyndon Baines Johnson delivers his first State of the Union address. The key moment is his announcement declaring a War on Poverty.
Johnson was painfully familiar with the effects of rural poverty, and, elected to the House of Representatives in 1937, he came of age during the Depression and the New Deal. Once he became president, he pushed for an array of government programs to combat poverty, which claimed nearly one in five Americans. Ten years later, the rate had fallen to just over 11 percent.
It has been fashionable on the Right, since Reagan’s famous declaration that “poverty won,” to make various claims about the failure of the War on Poverty, with critics often citing the current rate of more than 15 percent as “proof.” That’s dreck, of course. First of all, citing the current poverty rate ignores the fact we’re still recovering from the worst recession since the 1930s and unemployment is stuck at 7 percent (if you include marginal workers and those who are working part-time because they can’t get full-time jobs, it’s more than double that), and that situation isn’t going to get much better anytime soon.. It ignores the fact that real wages have actually fallen for millions of working Americans. It ignores the fact the minimum wage hasn’t increased since 2009, and it’s currently below the 1964 level, when factoring inflation.
Further, it ignores where we would be if those programs–housing, education, health care–despite years of funding cuts, did not exist.
There are lots of discussions/analyses out this week about the impact of the War on Poverty, but here are some of the important ones: Jared Bernstein., Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Atlantic Cities, Washington Post’s Wonkblog, Mother Jones, Aljazeera, and the Center for American Progress.
Make no mistake, poverty is stubbornly resiliant, abetted by those who would pull the rug out from under tens of millions of Americans and their families. But the fight will continue. Despite the flaws in his approach, Lyndon Johnson was right.