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The unfinished war [Commentary]

50 years after the first, it's time to launch a new War on Poverty

By Mark Shriver and Jim Grossfeld

January 12, 2014

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Fifty years after the first, it's time to launch a new War on Poverty. But to do it we need to challenge myths about the first that have convinced too many that combating poverty is just one more phenomenon of the '60s that can never happen again.

Patricia's smile lights up the office of Maryland Hunger Solutions in Baltimore. It's easy to see why the homebound disabled and elderly she cares for look forward to her visits. But ask Patricia whether she earns enough to care for herself and her two children, ages 10 and 12, and her smile slips away.

"If I wasn't eligible for the program (food stamps), and if my kids weren't receiving free lunches through their school, I don't how we would eat," she says.

For Patricia each day is a struggle for survival. That's not the way it has to be.

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty — the most far-reaching federal intervention against economic inequality since the New Deal. To a great degree it worked. Initiatives ranging from Medicare to Head Start helped slash the U.S. poverty rate from 19 percent in 1964 to 11.2 percent a decade later.

Still, over 46 million Americans are living in poverty (at or below $23,492 for a family of four) today. More than one-third of them are children. Even more shocking, the National Poverty Center reports that some 1.7 million households with about 3.6 million children get by on $2 or less per person per day. To put that in perspective, a UNICEF study ranking 35 developed countries according to child poverty found that America came in 34th.

It's time to launch a new War on Poverty. But to do it we need to challenge myths about the first that have convinced too many that combating poverty is just one more phenomenon of the '60s that can never happen again.

Myth Number One: Americans only care about helping the poor when times are good. Wrong. When a Pew poll last January asked what President Barack Obama's and Congress' agenda should be for 2013, 57 percent agreed that "dealing with the problems of poor and needy" people should be a top priority. Clearly, if Americans don't care about poverty in times like these, someone forgot to tell them.

Myth Number Two: The War on Poverty only passed because Congress in the 1960s was a juggernaut of liberalism. Hardly. To be sure, Democrats held majorities in both houses during the Kennedy and Johnson years, but Capitol Hill was under the thumb of powerful Southern committee chairmen who saw the War on Poverty as part and parcel of the White House's civil rights agenda. It took the active support of the religious community, the civil rights movement and organized labor to make the War on Poverty a reality.

Myth Number Three: A national campaign against poverty can't be organized today. The remarkable growth of the marriage equality and immigration reform movements demonstrates that millions of Americans understand that it still takes boots on the ground to make change happen. Just look to Pope Francis whose profound commitment to the poor has electrified the Catholic Church and moved millions to action. President Obama has already laid out a series of proposals that would help move children out of poverty. Just one of them, universal pre-K, would offer the high-quality early education needed to succeed in school. He is now calling for a long-overdue increase in the minimum wage. Raising it to $10.10 an hour would either directly or indirectly help almost 28 million workers — more than 26 percent of them parents. These are excellent proposals, but we can't stop there.

Half in Ten, a coalition of more than 200 organizations, argues persuasively that the U.S. poverty rate can be cut by 50 percent in a decade's time, and they've offered a series of proposals to make it happen. To some, that may seem like an audacious goal, but if the 1960s teaches us anything, it's that Americans never respond to appeals for cautious compromises. To paraphrase Robert Kennedy, we're not a people who "look at things the way they are, and ask why ... but dream of things that never were, and ask why not?"

It's time we dream again.

Mark Shriver is senior vice president, strategic initiatives for Save the Children. Jim Grossfeld is a contributor to American Prospect magazine. Their emails are mshriver@savechildren.org and Jimgrossfeld57@gmail.com.


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