Fifty years later, war on poverty needs new focus

An editorial from the Herald-Dispatch

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — As television shows and anniversaries will remind us through the coming months, 1964 was quite a momentous year.

From landmark civil rights legislation to The Beatles landing in New York and the publication of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” the events of 50 years ago planted the seeds of great social, cultural and political change. One of those moments was President Lyndon Johnson’s call for a “war on poverty” in his State of the Union address given on Jan. 8, 1964.

The legislation that followed dramatically ramped up aid to the poor in our region and across the country and created many of the public assistance programs that continue today, including Medicare, Medicaid and food stamps.

But a half century later poverty is still with us, entrenched in some ways more than ever. When Johnson began his “Great Society” effort in 1964, about 20 percent of Americans lived below the poverty level. That rate dropped to about 11-12 percent in the early 1970s and again about 2000, but many times it rose back to about 15 percent, where it stands today.

Fifty years and billions of dollars later, we have cut the poverty rate only about 5 points. We may have moved the battle line slightly, but we certainly did not win the war. Meanwhile, many of us fear that some government efforts have created a cycle of dependency that is very difficult to break.

In an ongoing study by the Pew Charitable Trust called “Economic Mobility Project,” researchers and students of policy conclude that while federal and state programs have provided a safety net for those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, there has been too little focus on how to help people climb up the ladder…

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