We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty at roughly the same time we're observing the 85th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That's fitting because despite the concentrated effort to neuter King by overemphasizing his 1964 "I Have a Dream Speech," his last days on earth were spent trying to uplift garbage workers in Memphis, Tenn. and planning a Poor Peoples Campaign that would culminate in a march to the nation's capital.
Unlike today, when our politicians seek to get elected and re-elected by groveling and catering to the middle class, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty in his Jan. 8, 1964 State of the Union message.
"This administration here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America," he said. "We shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on Earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it."
Unfortunately, another war – Vietnam – caused Johnson to retreat before he could declare, in the words associated with President George W. Bush, "Mission Accomplished." Instead of rallying the troops around this noble cause, some subsequent presidents retreated. President Reagan saw fit to joke about this serious national undertaking.
Providing a throwaway line that conservatives still use today, the former actor said: "In 1964 the famous War on Poverty was declared and a funny thing happened . . . I guess you could say, poverty won the war."
Liberals were also misleading, saying instead of having a War on Poverty, it was more like a skirmish on poverty.
The truth lies somewhere between those polar opposites.
Since we began collecting such statistics, the lowest U.S. poverty rate was 11.1 percent in 1973. It rose to 15.2 percent in 1983 before falling back to 11.3 percent. In 2012, 13 million people lived below half of the poverty line, most of them children.
According to scholars at Columbia University, when recalculated to include expenses not counted in official statistics, the poverty rate fell from more than 25 percent in 1967 to about 16 percent today. Over that period, the child poverty rate declined form 30 percent to less than 20 percent and the elderly poverty rate decline dramatically, from 45 percent to 15 percent.
"The truth is that the nation's investment in the War on Poverty has yielded huge and lasting gains," Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik wrote. "LBJ's program was not just a plan for financial handouts. It also encompassed a broad approach encompassing 'better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities,' as he put it in his address on Jan. 8, 1964. LBJ's campaign brought us Head Start (in 1965) as well as Medicare and Medicaid. He understood that political and social empowerment were indispensable factors in economic betterment, so he pushed for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965."
Still, many expected the poverty rate to be lower than it is today.
According to the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities (CPP), "The poverty story over the last half-century in the United States is mixed for several reasons. A much stronger safety net along with factors such as rising education levels, higher employment among women, and smaller families helped push poverty down. At the same time, rising numbers of single-parent families, growing income inequality, and worsening labor market prospects for less-skilled workers have pushed in the other direction.
"Today's safety net – which includes important programs and improvements both from the Johnson era and thereafter – cuts poverty nearly in half. In 2012, it kept 41 million people, including 9 million children, out of poverty, according to the Census Bureau's Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM). If government benefits are excluded, today's poverty rate would be 29 percent under the SPM; with those benefits, the rate is 16 percent."
Other factors also contribute to today's poverty rate, including rising income inequality, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. It stated that between 1964 and 2012, the share of national income going to the top 1 percent of U.S. households nearly doubled, from 11 percent to 22 percent in 2012. Meanwhile, the share of national income going to the poorest fifth of households fell between 1979 (the earliest year available) and 2012.
There is also the issue of shrinking jobs that pay decent wages, especially those at the low end of the pay scale.
"Moreover, large racial disparities remain, with child poverty much higher and the share of African Americans with a college degree much lower than among whites. Meanwhile, poverty in America is high compared to other wealthy nations largely because our safety net does less to lift people out of poverty than those of other Western nations," the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted.
The War on Poverty is far from over. Although slow to join the battle, President Obama is now fully engaged, underscoring our country's economic inequality. This is no time for the president or Congress to surrender.
[George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.]