We the People

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Politics and civil commentary with community columnist John Eyster.

Fifty years later, do you think US is winning war on poverty?

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John W. Eyster
Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Media—print and electronic—is filled with reviews and evaluations of the declaration of a “WAR ON POVERTY” by President Lyndon Baines Johnson in his first State of the Union Address on January 8, 1964. Just think: This address was made only seven weeks after President Kennedy had been assassinated.

Among the articles about this 50th anniversary of the declaration of the “WAR ON POVERTY,” I think Susan Page has written an outstanding feature article published by USA TODAY, “50 years later, war on poverty has new battle lines: Issues of economic fairness and opportunity once again are fueling a more vocal populism.”

I urge you to use the link and take time to watch the video from the LBJ Presidential Library which features President Johnson's declaration of the WAR ON POVERTY. I was INSPIRED to hear President Johnson's voice announcing the declaration of the WAR ON POVERTY. Various persons who knew President Johnson and some of his biographers are reminding us of the INTENSE PERSONAL EXPERIENCE Johnson had growing up in POVERTY in Texas. This is a KEY factor to understand Johnson's intensity on this issue. The truth is: Johnson HATED poverty!

Susan Page asserts, “Now, issues of economic fairness and opportunity once again are fueling a more vocal populism, setting a more liberal Democratic agenda and prompting alternative proposals from some leading Republicans. In his own State of the Union Address this month, President Obama is expected to call for raising the minimum wage, extending long-term unemployment benefits and addressing the dramatically widening gap between the rich and everybody else.”

We gain perspective on the anniversary from Page's interview with Joseph Califano, LBJ's top White House domestic policy adviser who noted approvingly, "I think income inequality has really hit a nerve, a political nerve.” She reports that Califano noted the populist priorities outlined last week in the inaugural address by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, the most liberal mayor in at least two decades in the nation's largest city. Califano is quoted, "I think we're going to see a revival of programs really designed to give the poor a lift."

Page's review with commentary on NOW and THEN is a helpful reminder, “To be sure, there's little prospect Obama will be able to push through major legislation in short order the way Johnson did in the 1960s, utilizing big Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, his legendary legislative skill and the nation's resolve in the wake of JFK's death. From the 1964 State of the Union Address until he left office five years later, Johnson would sign into law landmark measures that extended civil rights protections and established safety net programs. (His presidency also would become mired in the expanding Vietnam War.)”

Page's article has a heading, “Poverty won.” That is a continuing issue. Did “poverty” really win? She argues, “The fact that poverty wasn't vanquished then and persists today has provided ammunition for those who say the goal was impossible or the wrong tools were chosen to reach it.”

What about the statistics Page cites, “The official poverty rate in the United States, defined as lacking resources for life's basic needs, was 19% in 1964. It had fallen to 12.1% by 1969, the year Johnson left office. Last year, it stood at 15%, only a modest decline from the launch of his anti-poverty campaign. Today, about 50 million Americans, including 13 million children, live below the poverty line—in 2012 set at $23,492 for a family of four.”

You will want to read the article so you benefit from Page's continuing analysis. I suggest you read Michael Tomasky's Daily Beast article, “Marco Rubio Is Wrong: The War on Poverty Worked.”

Concluding his serious analysis of the WAR ON POVERTY, Tomasky asserts, “It will be Democrats' job to make sure Rubio and Ryan can't get away with their ideological sleight of hand. They will undoubtedly speak solemnly, for example, of teenage pregnancy and child-bearing, confident that most Americans don't know that the incidence of these behaviors, even in the African-American community, has decreased dramatically since 1990 according to The National Campaign's “Fast Facts: Teen Pregnancy and Childbearing Among Non-Hispanic Black Teens.”

If we are entering a new phase of fighting a war on inequality, Americans need to know some facts about the last war that firmly support the view that the effort and resources have done far more good than harm. The Democrats just have to be willing—and proud—to say it and say it and say it.”

Page makes a telling argument that President Obama must get involved as LBJ did, “LBJ devoted time, focus, horse-trading, cajoling and occasionally political threats to get legislation passed, at times over the fierce opposition of conservative Southern Democrats who controlled key committees. Now, Califano says he hopes Obama will follow that example to 'get his fingernails dirty' and exert stronger leadership than he has to date. He likened Obama's reluctance to engage with Congress with another former boss, Jimmy Carter.”

She pursues the argument quoting Califano, "We are a presidential nation. The president is as much at fault as the Congress in Congress not doing anything. Congress will only work with a very strong president, whether it's Theodore Roosevelt or Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson—three great eras of progressive programs."

There is meaningful discussion of the current situation in the American political dynamics which you will want to read to gain information and perspective.

Concluding her feature article Page, she quotes Califano, "My own hunch, I think we're seeing the seeds of another populist time coming. It's not only the 99% versus the 1%. It's the fear that the middle class has of slipping into poverty. There are a lot of people on the edge."

The New York Times posted the analysis of Jared Bernstein, Senior Fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington and a former chief economist to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., “The War on Poverty at 50.”

Which pursues the question as to whether we won the WAR ON POVERTY. He cites President Reagan's quip, “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.” He analyzes the issue concluding, “The American safety net is actively helping millions of economically disadvantaged families, and we should protect and improve it. But the best way to help it—and more importantly, the poor themselves—is to strengthen the underlying economy in ways that will take some of the pressure off of what has, over the last 50 years, become an effective set of anti-poverty social policies.”

I agree that LBJ's WAR ON POVERTY put into place very important set of anti-poverty social policies. I believe we MUST maintain these policies. What do YOU think?

John W. Eyster lives in the Edgerton area. He is an adjunct professor assigned with the online/distance education faculty of Viterbo University, LaCrosse. He continues his personal mission supporting democracy/civics education in Wisconsin K-12 schools through Project Citizen, We the People, Discovering Democracy (Milton HS). John is a community blogger and is not a part of The Gazette staff or management.

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