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50 years on

260568626.jpgPresidents don’t declare war lightly. And yet 50 years ago today, President Lyndon B. Johnson stood in front of a joint session of Congress and called on our nation to launch an “unconditional war on poverty,” a national commitment to make life better for so many who were struggling. He followed this declaration with dozens of bills in the next few months, almost all eventually approved by Congress, and signed into law. The results were programs now familiar to Americans, like Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, Pell Grants, expansions to Social Security and nutrition assistance.

Today, some policymakers will claim that we have lost that war, as our nation still struggles with a 46.5 million people under the federal poverty line. But the war on poverty hasn’t failed - our economy has failed.  In fact, a new study from Columbia University shows that when safety net programs are taken into account it helped our nation reduce poverty from a rate of 26 percent in 1967, shortly after President Johnson’s announcement, to 16 percent in 2012. 

That is progress. 

One of the biggest differences between then and now is the structure of our economy. In the decades after World War II, the gains of our economic growth were shared across a broad spectrum of incomes. And, for those who still struggled, a safety net of programs was there to support them until they could get themselves back on their feet.  Starting in the 1970s, long-term changes in the economy including reduced manufacturing jobs, weakened unions, and reduced investment in skills training contributed to widening inequality and more poverty.  Today, we face some of the highest rates of income inequality since the 1920’s and too many sectors of employment with stagnant wages that don’t pay enough for families to make ends meet.

In the short term, politicians should stop making the situation worse.  They should act immediately to restore emergency unemployment insurance benefits and prevent any further cuts to nutrition assistance in the Farm Bill. More than 70,000 people in North Carolina have already lost unemployment benefits when the General Assembly slashed payments and reduced what many are eligible to receive, millions more throughout the country were left out in the cold when benefits ended in December.  To make matters worse, more than 1.7 million North Carolinians have already experienced a reduction in nutrition assistance support this past November.  Yet, House and Senate negotiators are contemplating even further cuts to nutrition assistance in the billions of dollars.  Congress should also support an increase in the minimum wage and tie future increases to inflation so that a breadwinner’s wage doesn’t fall behind their family’s cost of living, rather than conspiring to make things even more difficult.

It’s time for Congress to reset the conversation.  Instead of an agenda of reckless cuts, we need a new investment agenda that will grow our economy in a way that works for everyone, not just those at the very top. Now 50 years on from the declaration of the War on Poverty, it is more than time to recommit ourselves to the cause, lest we waste the next 50 years and find ourselves in the Century of Poverty, unable to explain to our children why the richest nation on Earth was bested by the simplest of enemies.

We proved to ourselves as a nation that we can cut poverty dramatically before, so we know we can do it again.  In fact, in the 10 years following President Johnson’s declaration, the poverty rate fell by 42 percent, reaching an historic low of 11.1 percent. As President Johnson called us to action 50 years ago, it’s time to recommit to cutting poverty again.