Guest opinion by Claire Levy published in the Boulder Daily Camera
Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on poverty” in his first State of the Union address. The country was still mourning the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and Johnson needed to heal the country in his first major address to Congress and the nation. By choosing to shine a spotlight on poverty, Johnson focused the nation on a shameful aspect of our society. In the most affluent and powerful country ever seen, nearly 20 percent of the population lived in poverty. Johnson appealed to our better nature as a country. He saw that our strength as a world leader was hampered by poverty and by racial discrimination.
It is time once again to commit ourselves to eradicating poverty. During the past half century our country’s commitment to that goal has waxed and waned. I fear we now accept an economic system in which 15 percent of our citizens cannot put food on their plates, do not have safe housing for their families, and are not engaged in meaningful work that contributes to their sense of well-being and contributes to the improvement of this country.
As Johnson said 50 years ago, a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom.
“The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children,” Johnson said.
These causes are still at work today. But they can be remedied if we recognize that there are solutions to the causes of poverty and if we dedicate ourselves to addressing them.
We all have a stake in this fight. People who live in poverty are among us and they matter. Their children sit in our classrooms; their sons and daughters fight our wars; they toil on our farms and prepare our food; they care for our aging parents; and they walk our streets. The lack of opportunity deprives this country of the creativity and productivity of a significant part of its population. It contributes to the crime rate. It fosters distrust in others and in our public institutions. In short, it undermines what this country stands for — the notion that we are the land of opportunity, one nation whose fortunes rise and fall together.
Some will say this situation is the unfortunate byproduct of globalization and technology. Others will argue that the money spent to alleviate poverty during the past 50 years proves government programs are not effective. Both arguments are wrong. Technology has been deployed at an increasing rate since the industrial revolution but until the last decade the resulting increases in productivity increased median family income. Through most of the 20th century median family income grew along with expanding mechanization. As for the mistaken notion that “we waged a war on poverty and poverty won,” consider where we would be without food stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, and job-training programs. Public programs lifted 41 million people out of poverty in 2011, including nearly 9 million children.
Arguments against refocusing on poverty reduction invite us to simply turn our backs on the poor. We cannot do that and be true to the promise of this country. Instead, we must create a full employment economy that provides a living wage in return for a hard day of work. We must provide the child care assistance and job training necessary so low-income mothers can return to the workforce and provide for their children. Children must have access to quality child care, preschool, and full-day kindergarten so they do not begin their education already behind. And we must dedicate ourselves to creating enough affordable, clean, safe housing so families can live in dignity.
President Johnson established ambitious goals for this country 50 years ago. Those goals were not out of reach. Achieving them simply required resolve. The same is true today.
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