Thanks to a military-like bombardment of media stories about the War on Poverty, I am 110% aware that we just marked 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson fired the first shot in this conflict, during his State of Union address on January 8, 1964.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof , however, thinks we’re making progress.
The Huffington Post lauded the programs and services created by Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) and offered the early declining poverty rates from 1964 (19%) to 1973 (10.1%) as proof that we were in fact winning.
Then there’s U.S. Congressman Danny K. Davis. The legislator announced on his website that he is “celebrating” this 50th anniversary, which seems to me an odd choice of words but it’s been brain-numbingly cold in his home district this week so I’ll assume he missed the last few words in the official dictionary definition (“To observe a day or event with respect, festivity, or rejoicing.”).
Whatever your political inclinations and subsequent interpretation of the facts, no one pretends the war is over. Many of the major weapons in this conflict (such as Head Start, Medicare, and Job Corps) are still around, and probably will be for the next 50 years.
Do we even have an exit strategy?
The answer is no, and to think one exists is naively optimistic.
America is a pretty special country, but to believe we could eliminate poverty was pretty audacious. We picked capitalism as our economic system, and capitalism creates winners and losers. It doesn’t claim to lift all boats.
What about other options? Communism looked great on paper but in reality, its approach to poverty was like that of a fussy child toward his vegetables: spread it around enough so no one really notices that it’s all still there. Socialism would never work in the U.S. because we like our personal stuff too much – where else could a show like Hoarders run for six seasons?
I think we’re stuck with poverty for the long haul. Instead of searching for an elusive exit strategy (or claiming victory or defeat), we should approach the engagement more like a peacekeeping mission. It’s time to put down our weapons, roll up our sleeves, and get to work. We can live with poverty if we do a few things right.
It’s not ideal to live hand-to-mouth, to rely on subsidized housing, or to wear second-hand clothes. But people can live with that. They can’t live with hunger, exposure, or untreated diseases. A civilized society needs to make the basics accessible. Period.
Think of the children.
Poverty can’t be permanent. Kids with very limited means need to be able to reach the rungs of the ladder that will allow them to climb out of poverty. Day care, education, recreation, mentoring, enrichment – our poor kids deserve the very best we have to offer so they won’t grow up to be poor.
Get rid of poverty clusters.
If you’re poor, you need social, professional, and spiritual connections to raise yourself. And yet most poor people live in neighborhoods full of other poor people. They only know other poor people, and their kids go to school with mostly poor kids. It’s a depressing geographic picture and not easy to fix, but we should all be trying. And on that note…
Try more stuff.
We haven’t figured out how to successfully raise people out of poverty, so there is endless opportunity to experiment. The answer probably lies in a thousand small things rather than one big thing…so let’s try something new every day (internships, counseling, early intervention, special education, etc.) and grow the portfolio of useful tools.
Celebrate generosity and innovation.
Poverty of wallet doesn’t mean poverty of spirit. What can we learn from the poor who are winning their personal battles and finding opportunity and success? What about those families who work together to realize their shared dreams? Family Independence Initiative gets this and the philosophy can’t grow fast enough.
The poor will always be with us. Fifty years from now, I hope we’re not still pointing fingers at each other, but rather opening our helping hands towards those in need.