Fifty years ago — tomorrow it will be 50 years precisely — President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “war on poverty” in his State of the Union address. But poverty has proven to be a stubborn foe; when the war was declared, the poverty rate was about 19 percent. One in five Americans was living in poverty.
Today, the figure is 16 percent — but more than 20 percent of American children.
Throughout the coming year, we’ll be looking at specific programs and practices, to determine if we’ve been fighting the war on poverty with the best arsenal and tactics possible.
But for now, let’s look at some of the overarching principles.
First, let’s all agree on a definition of poverty. Definitions matter because they direct the debate.
What is poverty? It’s certainly not merely the condition of having no money. “Broke” and “poor” aren’t the same thing. A full-time college student appears, on paper, to be poor. And he may even feel that way as he heats his ramen noodles. But his situation is fundamentally different from that of, say, a single mother with severely limited job skills, no car, and unreliable child care.
It’s more true to say that poverty is a lack of access to resources. Measures such as income and expenses are helpful, but they don’t present the full picture. A far better definition of poverty is offered by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, in their book “When Helping Hurts.”
“While poor people mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms...” the authors explain. “Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation and voicelessness. Low-income people daily face a struggle to survive that creates feelings of helplessness, anxiety, suffocation and separation that are simply unparalleled in the lives of the rest of humanity.”
That’s what makes the war on poverty so difficult to wage. If it really was just about income, a government check could fix everything.
History shows that it can’t.
“Despite trillions of taxpayer dollars spent to eradicate poverty since the late 1960s, the poverty rate has hardly budged,” said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. “And just last week, the Census Bureau reported that today, more than 49 million Americans still live below the poverty line.”
Lee added in a recent forum, “1964 wasn’t the year Americans started fighting poverty; it was the year we started losing that fight.”
That’s when Americans accepted Johnson’s premise that government programs were superior to private charitable actions.
“This discredited mindset — which insists collective action can only mean state action — is itself a kind of poverty,” Lee said. “It rejects social solidarity in favor of political coercion, and voluntary communities for professional community organizers. It distrusts and denies the bonds of cooperation and service that represent the highest expression of our dignity.”
But the war on poverty must still be fought, Lee says. Why? Because the poor “are not some government’s brothers and sisters — they are ours.”