The 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of a war on poverty brought long overdue attention to his commitment. Today, with one in five children in America still raised in poverty, an accounting is vital as part of a renewed commitment.
But largely absent from the debate around the war on poverty is any sense of its context. Johnson’s program was bold and courageous. Medicare and expanded Social Security dramatically reduced poverty among the elderly and the disabled. Food stamps and infant nutrition virtually erased malnutrition among children. Medicaid and hikes in the minimum wage helped lift the floor under the working poor. Head start, aid to schools in impoverished neighborhoods, and later Pell grants contributed directly to rising high school and college graduation rates. The Jobs Corps provided training and jobs for the unemployed, with a particular emphasis on Appalachia and rural poverty. The National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities and National Public Radio nourished minds as well.
Most creative was the Office of Economic Opportunity, situated in the White House itself, and focused on engaging “maximum feasible participation” in poor neighborhoods, so that recipients of aid could express their needs and create their own strategies.
Johnson’s program was an institutional response, enlisting the resources and the capacities of the federal government to address poverty and racial division.
But we should remember, as we head to the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, what Johnson was responding to. He wasn’t simply reacting to entrenched poverty and racial segregation; those were not new.
Johnson’s program was the government’s response to the call issued by Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. At the March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, Dr. King issued his dream. From his cell in Birmingham, he issued his moral challenge. In his 1964 State of the Union and his later address at the University of Michigan, President Johnson issued his response.
This is important in today’s debate. Many comment on how timid our politics are now, how tied into knots, even as poverty is getting worse and the middle class is struggling. The economy is rigged to benefit only the few, while most Americans struggle to stay afloat. Yet there is little response from Washington.
Affordable health care is essential, but reform has been met with unrelenting hostility. The Republican majority in the House has forced cuts in food stamps, dropped children from Head Start, cut aid to poor schools and even rejected continuing emergency jobless benefits. Rather than a war on poverty, they seem intent on waging a war on the poor.
But focus on the inadequacy of the response ignores the other missing factor: the inadequacy of the call. The poor are only beginning to find their voice, as witnessed in the protests of fast food workers. The movement for justice has only begun to stir, with voters forcing increases in the minimum wage in states and localities.
Those who benefit from the current arrangements will not lead the change. Political reformers face implacable and well-funded opposition. What is needed is for citizens of conscience to join with the oppressed to issue a moral call for change. Build that call to a tide that cannot be turned and then, and only then, will there be a response.
Dr. King led a movement that issued a stirring call for justice. Lyndon Johnson used his remarkable skills to drive an unprecedented response to that call. The prophet and the president were both remarkable leaders. We may not look on their like again. But even so, one thing is still clear: When we build the demand for change, leaders will arise to offer the response.
Jesse L. Jackson Sr. is founder and president of the Chicago-based Rainbow PUSH Coalition, rainbowpush.org.
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