War on Poverty

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson spoke before Congress and declared a War on Poverty. Out of that speech came a series of programs that transformed America and made life better for millions of our fellow citizens. 

Out of that speech came Medicare, a government health insurance program for senior citizens – which is now one of the most popular and important federal programs in existence.  Through Medicare, Americans are guaranteed health care when they age – when they need it the most.  What an extraordinary impact this has had for our country!  

Out of that speech came Medicaid, which provides health care to some 72 million low-income people and their kids.  Nobody can give an exact number as to how many lives Medicaid has saved, and how much suffering has been eased, but that number is very, very high. 

Out of that speech and the war on poverty came food stamps – a concept which said that nobody - no man, woman or child in the United States - should go hungry.  At a time of high unemployment food stamps are playing an increasingly important role in helping lower-income Americans live with a modicum of dignity.

Out of that speech came Head Start, which addressed the profound reality that quality early childhood education was vital if lower-income kids were to do well in school and move their way up from poverty.   

Out of that speech came the concept of community health centers – democratically and community run primary health care facilities, which today provide high-quality health and dental care, mental health counselling and low cost prescription drugs for more than 20 million Americans.

Out of that speech 50 years ago came the Older Americans Act, which focused a spotlight on the particular needs of vulnerable seniors and began such programs as Meals on Wheels and the congregate meal program. 

These are just some of the advances made under the war on poverty initiated by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

When Johnson inaugurated these programs, the overall poverty rate in America was over 19.5 percent – despite the relatively strong economy of the mid-1960s.  Today, despite a struggling economy caused by the Wall Street crash of 2008, the poverty rate is 15 percent, way too high but lower than it was in 1964.

Let’s be clear, it is a national disgrace that 46.5 million Americans are living in poverty today, the largest number on record.  It is a national disgrace that at 21.8 percent, the U.S. has the highest childhood poverty rate of any major country on earth.

But without the current social safety net which was largely established as a result of the War on Poverty and the New Deal, economists have told us that the poverty rate would be 29 percent - almost twice as high as it is today.

Progress has been made, but the U.S. continues to lag behind many other countries in terms of reducing poverty and income and wealth inequality. Countries like Finland, Denmark, Norway, Germany and Sweden have much lower poverty rates than we do because they invest more in their citizens, especially their kids.  They invest in quality childcare, education and job training for their young people. College is free. Health care for everyone is a right of citizenship.

Here in the United States, significant progress has been made but much more needs to be done to provide dignity and opportunity to all Americans regardless of income.