The words were a shock coming from a thoughtful, well-educated and otherwise reasonable public servant. Similarly worded sentiments undoubtedly set a thousand heads nodding in agreement in conservative circles, and our visitor seemed taken aback when pressed for a defense of such a sweeping claim.
What about the expansion of a middle class, particularly among African-Americans, brought on in part by the war on poverty?
What about the countless Americans who avoided spending their latter years in destitution?
What about the programs that allowed children born in poverty opportunities to a better life?
Yet, our visitor, while far too sweeping in his judgement, isn’t without a point. The poverty rate is 15 percent today, down only four percentage points from where it was in 1964.
Fifty years to the day — on Jan. 8, 1964 — after President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty, it’s clear more fighting remains.
Government bureaucrats of the 1960s were wildly optimistic in declaring their war would effectively end poverty. Too many factors that make people poor — including poor choices, bad schools and geography — are out of the government’s reach.
These same bureaucrats didn’t anticipate that their war would have more than one enemy. Since passage of LBJ’s anti-poverty legislation, a dedicated core of opponents fearful of the growth of government fought back. On the 50th anniversary, many of those will once again declare, as our visitor did long ago, that the war on poverty failed.
However, winning or losing isn’t an argument worth having. Approximately 50 million Americans are below the poverty line, a figure that covers 13 million children. Income inequality is at its widest gap than at any time since the Great Depression.
Fifty years ago, Johnson told us, “Our chief weapons in a more pinpointed attack will be better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities to help more Americans, especially young Americans, escape from squalor and misery and unemployment rolls where other citizens help to carry them.”
Those noble goals are no less needed today, particularly the drive for better schools. Our focus should remain on building quality schools that produce well-prepared students.These schools produce the maps that lead Americans out of the miserable swamp of poverty.