The War on Poverty: A Winding Road to Progress

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610px-Signing_of_the_EOAFifty years ago this month, President Lyndon Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty in America” in his State of the Union address. In that speech he introduced legislation to bolster educational opportunities, employment, health care, and housing for all, particularly the most vulnerable among us.

The War on Poverty would dramatically expand the federal government’s role in reducing poverty.  As those of us who have been around long enough can attest, this “war” has had a measurable impact, particularly in America’s cities. The War on Poverty led to the creation of programs that are now a familiar part of the political, economic, and social landscape of this country – programs such as Head Start, food stamps (now SNAP), and even Medicare and Medicaid. Although these programs have endured their share of controversy and debate about their efficacy over the years, recent studies have shown that these programs have played a significant role in reducing poverty in America’s cities, where the majority of the country’s low-income population has historically been concentrated.

Unfortunately, poverty is a complex animal, and problems still persist. Although the White House claims that poverty has dropped from nearly 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012, President Obama recently described economic inequality “as the defining challenge of our time” that “drives everything I do in office.”

Today, we need action on this issue at all levels of government. But for better or worse, the federal government has been shrinking over the last few decades – not just in terms of jobs but also in funding for discretionary programs such as Johnson’s anti-poverty programs and those that have come after.

So where does that leave cities? As usual, cities have taken the lead on reducing poverty and economic inequality and continue to implement a variety of programs that benefit low-income residents despite years of federal budget cuts.  Examples abound in cities across the country, including St. Paul, MN and San Antonio, TX.

Today, we need that same sense of urgency in addressing poverty that politicians and citizens alike felt 50 years ago. We need more investment in the very basic social programs that help ensure opportunity for all, programs that were the core of the War on Poverty – adequate education, health care, and job training. Policymakers at all levels of government should examine how their decisions impact the economic wellbeing of residents at all income levels. As we noted in our recent 10 Critical Imperatives Facing Cities report, despite recent economic gains, our middle class is shrinking.

Let’s use the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty to reflect on how effective government can be when elected officials work together in a bipartisan fashion to strengthen and expand the working- and middle-class, and to ask if we are doing all we can today to make sure our priorities are being heard in Washington.

About the Author: Clarence Anthony is the Executive Director of the National League of Cities. Follow Clarence on Twitter at @ceanthony50.