National Edition

War on poverty: Still being waged 50 years later

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

In searching for a cause to claim as his own, Johnson met with Walter Heller, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and Kennedy’s chief economic adviser. Heller had encouraged Kennedy to institute a program to deal with poverty, and the idea hit a nerve with Johnson. He jumped at the chance to propose a plan that wasn’t synonymous for the public with Kennedy’s name. He announced his intention to alleviate poverty as soon as he could, promising in his 1964 address to not only “relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it, and, above all, to prevent it.”

To that end, several key programs were established as hallmarks of the war on poverty — although many of the resulting programs have been at the heart of an ongoing debate over money, government spending and America’s poor for decades.

Johnson’s initial budget dedicated $1 billion to the effort — $500 million for existing programs and $500 million for new programs, such as the Social Security Amendments Act of 1965 that created Medicare and Medicaid and extended Social Security benefits to include retirees, widows and the disabled. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which established Title I funding for schools with a majority of impoverished students, was also created, food stamps became a permanent government program, and the Office of Economic Opportunity was established to oversee social programs such as Volunteers in Service to America, Job Corps, the Community Action Program, the Neighborhood Youth Corps and Head Start.

Many of the programs established during Johnson’s war on poverty have changed since their creation. The Office of Economic Opportunity was dissolved in 1974, along with several of its programs, which were disbanded or transferred to other organizations for oversight.

At the end of Johnson’s presidency, he looked back on his war on poverty as a success, despite the debate his programs inspired even early on. Still, despite his promises, by the time Johnson left office, he said there was work yet to be done.

“When I look back at conservation, civil rights, education … and the war on poverty, I think, ‘So little have we done. So much have we yet to do,’ ” Johnson told a group of friends gathered together at a dinner a week before he left office. “So as we prepare to depart, we leave the plow in the furrow, and actually, the field is only half tilled. … A president has only so much time … to do the things that he really believes in and he thinks must be done. Within those limits … I know that I have given it everything I have had.”

Funding the war

Money has been tight at the Salt Lake Community Action Plan’s Head Start program before, but they’ve always gotten by.

The program, which is based in Utah — one of seven states in the country that doesn’t offer Head Start state funding — hasn’t received any increases to its budget in 10 years, despite a waiting list that at any given time has about 800 students. But with the help of community partnerships, foundations and support from corporations, the program maintained all of its services up until the 2013 sequestration that reduced Head Start’s budget by 5 percent and eliminated services for 57,000 children across the country.

“You know, it’s sad we have to absorb these cuts,” said Nancy Hobbes, operations manager of Head Start at Salt Lake Community Action Program. “We tried to make it as minimal as possible and only cut home-based programs … but the sequestration is the first time that we really had to deal with funding cuts. We tightened our belts — but not cut.”

Some would argue programs like Head Start should have been cut a long time ago as a luxury the country simply cannot afford. In 2012, the government spent $7.9 billion on Head Start, according to the Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families, and $773 billion on Social Security benefits, $732 billion on Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and $411 billion on safety net programs such as the Child Tax Credit and food stamps, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The government borrowed about $1 trillion to finance the budget, acccording to the center.

Spending so much money on programs designed to target poverty has harmed the country, says Sheldon Richman, vice president of the Future of Freedom Foundation, a Libertarian think tank that advocates minimal government involvement.

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