Fifty years ago this month, our nation was still mourning the assassination of a beloved president, becoming more involved in a far-away war and grappling with the growing demands of an an impatient civil rights movement.
It was against this backdrop that President Lyndon Johnson, less than seven weeks in office, delivered his first State of the Union address, a speech that was to offer comfort for a grieving people, hope for those who were deemed less than first-class citizens and a new vision for a nation on the brink of profound change.
In addition to addressing the need for an austere budget, support for troops fighting in Southeast Asia and a desire for for unity among politicians, the president used the occasion to declare another war.
“This administration, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America,” Johnson proclaimed before a joint session of Congress.
As we have seen in subsequent years, declaring war on societal problems, as opposed to going to battle with a foreign enemy, can be more hyperbolic rhetoric than a true, effective attack on the issue.
But Johnson understood the complexities of the nation’s enemy called “poverty,” realizing that lack of money and jobs were the symptoms of poverty, not the causes. He also knew that in addition to lack of education, medical care and decent communities, the evils of segregation and discrimination were major contributors to the cause.
Noting that no single piece of legislation could solve the problem, the president outlined a list of proposals to enhance educational opportunities, healthcare, area redevelopment, youth employment, food supplies, extended minimum wage coverage, libraries and housing.
Poverty, he said, was not a problem that could be solved by the national government alone. It needed state and local participation.
Congress moved quickly in enacting legislation to put much of what the president asked for into effect. Out of it came Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start, better public housing and community-based programs to help the poor.
There is no doubt some of the programs were mismanaged and ineffective, and there’s been a continuing debate as to whether the goal of reducing poverty in the country has been met. At the same time, some wonder what the state of the nation would be had this massive effort never been undertaken.
The debate will continue, but there are still Americans in poverty (about 15 percent), inequality persists and there’s the phenomenon of the “working poor,” people who have jobs but can’t make enough money to support their families.
Yet, state and federal welfare spending, adjusted for inflation, far exceeds what was spent when Johnson declared his war.
Many studies point to the unintended consequences of huge safety-net programs, suggesting that they have enabled behavior that insidiously erodes economic mobility and keeps many Americans from becoming self-reliant. They also note other contributors to poverty such as fractured families, racial and economic segregation and quality of schools.
There’s nothing wrong with debating the issue of whether past initiatives worked, realizing that more often than not one’s political affiliation will influence his or her position on that question.
The two major political parties tend to have different approaches to how the nation should proceed from here in tackling poverty in the most resource-rich country in the world.
Political leaders should at least try to put their partisanship aside, unite around the importance of this issue and work together to find solutions.
They ought to remember Johnson’s words to Congress in 1964 after invoking the name of John F. Kennedy:
“In his memory today, I especially ask all members of my own political faith … to put your country ahead of your party, and to always debate principles; never debate personalities.”