Conquering poverty, 50 years later

Compiled by Erik Raymond

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 8 2014 1:45 p.m. MST

Lynda Johnson Robb, President Lyndon B. Johnson's daughter, right, joined by members of the Congressional Black Caucus and others, speaks during an event on Capitol Hill in Washington, in this Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, file photo marking the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's declaration of the War on Poverty.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty. "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," he announced, as quoted in USA Today. "The richest nation on Earth can afford to win it."

Now, 50 years later, some debate the effect it has had.

Joseph Califano, a former domestic policy adviser for LBJ, told USA Today's Susan Page that he believes there is a resurgence of another populist movement, one similar to the one that fueled the War on Poverty. Page also reported that there is growing evidence that it is not just a one-party effort. “Now, issues of economic fairness and opportunity once again are fueling a more vocal populism, setting a more liberal Democratic agenda and prompting alternative proposals from some leading Republicans.”

The reason for the renewed focus on poverty is not difficult to understand. As The Atlantic's Derek Thompson suggests, we are not winning the war. He cites that the poverty rate has only dropped from 19 percent to 15 percent since Johnson first declared his anti-poverty agenda. “Poverty is winning the war,” Thompson says in the introduction to his article, "The War on Poverty turns 50: Why aren't we winning?"

One of the major obstacles to winning the War on Poverty is a single-parent household, Thompson argues, which makes it almost impossible for them to work full-time.

“Among marriages where one person works and the other doesn't (another 36 million Americans) the poverty rate is just under 10 percent,” Thompson wrote. “But take away one parent, and the picture changes rather dramatically."

Thompson explains that among the 62 million single-parent families in the US, there is a major shortage of full-time workers. "This is something beyond a wage crisis. It's a jobs crisis, a participation crisis — and it's a major driver of our elevated poverty rate.”

Similarly, CNN theorizes that poverty is not only a result of monetary strife, but also a consequence of politics. Stephanie Coontz, contradicting Ronald Reagan’s most famous mantra, argued that “It is a myth that government is the problem rather than part of the solution.” She also argues that if the War on Poverty had not been abandoned in the 1980s, we’d be in a much better place than we see ourselves today.

However, not everyone sees the legislation that LBJ introduced 50 years ago as productive. According to Thomas V. DiBacco of The Washington Times, American history can be extremely useful, but politicians often neglect it. “Millions of indigent immigrants came to this country in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, often found discrimination, but somehow improved their lot without federal government programs.”

So, even 50 years after LBJ introduced the War on Poverty, it rages on today with the lingering question of what is and is not working to help curb poverty in America.

Erik Raymond is experienced in national and international politics. He relocated from the Middle East where he was working on his second novel. He produces content for DeseretNews.com. Email: eraymond@deseretdigital.com, Twitter: @RaymondErik.

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