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War on poverty: Still being waged 50 years later

Published: Friday, Jan. 17 2014 4:00 a.m. MST

Hazel Hilton carries her "babies" in a blanket with Marcel Perez as Maryan Vatuvel pretends to eat a hamburger at the Salt Lake CAP Head Start in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. Salt Lake CAP Head Start is a comprehensive early childhood development program serving low-income children from birth to 5 and their families.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

At first glance, the boys and girls filing into a Head Start class on a recent, snowy morning in Salt Lake City look like any other 3- and 4-year-olds.

Almost all of the kids wear snow boots, and warm coats hang in their cubbyholes in the hallway.

There’s a little girl with mussy hair and a flowered dress doling out puzzles to her friends and a skinny boy crumpled in the corner who cries as soon as he arrives, already missing home. The hum of squeaky voices and dimpled little hands playing with toys grows each time the door opens with another student, until finally, it’s time to take a seat at the tiny tables where breakfast awaits.

That’s when other subtle clues emerge to suggest that this classroom is a little different.

For one thing, these students all live in poverty, part of the 24 percent of children in America under age 6 who are classified as poor. Their coats and boots were given to them by Head Start, the government-funded preschool program that teaches them about numbers, letters, health and nutrition, and feeds them a square meal every day — perhaps the only one they get.

Their parents, in an average family of four, make about $13,700 a year. Their classroom is one of the remaining vestiges of the "war on poverty” declared by President Lyndon B. Johnson 50 years ago in his first-ever State of the Union address on Jan. 8, 1964.

Whether a strategic move to set his presidency apart from his predecessor, President John F. Kennedy, or because Johnson himself grew up poor, Johnson's war on poverty created welfare programs and practices that still stand at the epicenter of budgetary, policy and humanitarian debates today. As the country's unemployment rate has soared above 6 percent for more than five years, and another national budget crisis looms on the horizon, some experts say Johnson’s programs — like food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start — have worsened the situation for America’s poor. Yet as America’s poverty rate hovered around 15 percent in 2012 — compared to 19 percent in 1964, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey — other advocates argue Johnson’s programs and subsequent additions of a safety net have lifted more people out of poverty than ever before.

While neither side sees eye-to-eye on many things when it comes to poverty, there is consensus that something must be done — the question is what.

But here, in the Head Start classroom where the children are sitting in little metal chairs, happily eating their breakfasts, there is a different question from the eager kids with crumbs on their plates: can they have another bran muffin?

Today, they’re in luck. There’s more for everyone.

LBJ’s War on Poverty

When Johnson stood to give his first State of the Union address on Jan. 8, 1964, he had only been president for six weeks. His oath of office was initiated under the cloud of death and uncertainty that followed after Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, and Johnson was determined to use this customary speech to make a mark and claim his presidency as his own.

“Every president has to develop a moral underpinning to his power, or he soon discovers he has no power at all,” Johnson wrote about his initial challenges of being president in his memoir, “Vantage Point.”

“For me, that presented special problems. … I knew I was an unknown quantity to many of my countrymen and to much of the world when I assumed office. I suffered another handicap, since I had come to the Presidency not through the collective will of the people but in the wake of tragedy. I had no mandate from the voters.”

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