Writes Dreier, because of policies instituted in the War on Poverty, "the nation's poverty rate was cut in half, from 22.2 percent in 1960 to an all time low of 11.1 percent by 1973. Most dramatic was the decline of poverty among the elderly, from 35.2 percent in 1959 to 14.6 percent in 1974, thanks to enactment of Medicare in 1965 and cost-of-living increases for Social Security. The poverty rate among African Americans fell from 55.1 percent in 1959 (when most blacks still lived in the rural South) to 41.8 percent in 1966 (when blacks were an increasingly urban group) to 30.3 percent by 1974."
Just above 15 percent live below the poverty line today - some percentage points below that 1960s rate. It's still too high but as Drier notes, " without anti-poverty programs, the nation's poverty rate would be twice as large. But to make greater headway in reducing poverty, we need to combine targeted anti-poverty programs with broader policies to revitalize the economy, create more good-paying jobs, and reduce the nation's disastrous gap between the super-rich and everyone else. We need a policy agenda to share prosperity."
That idea of shared prosperity was also the crux of a book that Dreier rightly points to as an inspiration for Johnson, and for John F. Kennedy, Johnson's predecessor who got the ball rolling on addressing the issue of poverty in America. That book, Michael Harrington's "The Other America", was seminal in opening many eyes to the poor living in dire conditions in this country, often obscured and left invisible as people celebrated the rise of the nation's middle class after World War II.
That book was one of the first books I read as a teenager concerned about social justice issues. I still have my frayed, brown copy and have gone back to its powerful portrayals time and time again as a reminder and prod that such conditions must not remain invisible. We as Americans can and should do something about them.
As I wrote in June, Johnson's War on Poverty was also inspired by North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford's similar effort in this state with the N.C. Fund in 1963. I reiterate that a similar focus on poverty is needed in North Carolina today.
Policies and strategies from that time brought better education, job training, child tutoring, daycare and other economic development strategies to communities statewide and helped boost the prospects of millions of residents.
Of course, the common stereotype these days is that the poor are lazy and are poor because they want to live on the public dole. That does not fit the description of most poor people I know. Many are hardworking, working two jobs during the week, and a third on the weekend. Most do it without complaint and are just trying to give their children a leg up so they won't have to struggle so hard for so little.
Johnson had the right idea with the War on Poverty - to give people a hand up with a focus on jobs, education, housing and food aid to enable the next generation to stand on their own. Things didn't work out as planned, as Dreier notes with jobs and education programs getting short-changed because they were too expensive.
But I agree with Dreier. He writes that "within a decade after President Johnson declare a War on Poverty, we cut the nation's poverty rate in half. We should commit ourselves to cutting it in half once again by 2025.
"We know how to reduce poverty. We need to invest public dollars in a jobs program to create full employment, enact a federal minimum wage above the poverty line, expand the Earned Income Tax Credit, increase funding for college financial aid, reduce the pay gap between women and men, make affordable health care available to all Americans, strengthen the social safety net (nutrition assistance, food stamps, housing subsidies), and update our lopsided labor laws so that workers who want to unionize have a level playing field to do so."
We can and must recommit to fighting poverty. In a country as rich as ours, it would be shameful not too.
- Fannie Flono