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War on Poverty’s 50th anniversary should be a time of renewal and recommitment

Johnson Presidential Library
On Jan. 8, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson in his State of the Union address spoke these words: “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.”

On Jan. 8, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson in his State of the Union address spoke these words: “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.” Sadly, we have not won that war.

Jim Scheibel

At that time, 36 million lived in poverty in America. Today, 47 million people live at or below the level defined by the government as poverty. In my city, St. Paul, from 1999 to 2010, 24,000 people fell into poverty. 67,000 people, one in every four, now live in poverty.

The achievement gap, unemployment and hopelessness are linked to poverty. There are too many people working full time who cannot survive and support their families and themselves.

President Johnson united the American people behind carrying forward President John F. Kennedy’s vision, not because of sympathy but because it was right. We need prophetic voices and united action today.

We have heard President Barack Obama warn that income inequality threatens the American Dream. “I believe this is the defining challenge of our time, it drives everything I do in office,” he said. Pope Francis has unswervingly pointed to the scandal of poverty in the world of plenty. Mayor de Blasio has said improving the lives of the 46 percent New Yorkers with income below 150 percent of poverty is his priority.

The War on Poverty did have an impact. We should continue to require the participation of low-income people in strategies for the future. Programs initiated in 1964 like Head Start, Job Corps, Legal Services and VISTA can be tapped as a part of today’s solution.

Build on effective programs

The 50th anniversary is a time for Americans to renew a commitment to economic opportunity for all. We should build upon programs and organizations that have been effective. There needs to be a sense of urgency in addressing poverty. Policymakers at all levels of government should examine how their decisions impact the poor. Each of us must consider what we can do. As Sen. Paul Wellstone reminded us, “We all do better, when we all do better.”

We begin 2014 with some encouraging plans and proposals.

  • Mayor Coleman, Carleen Rhodes of the Minnesota Community Foundation, Matt Kramer of the Chamber and a task force they led have put forward a proposal for re-making the Dorothy Day Center. The planning did include listening to current users of Dorothy Day. It includes shelter, transitional and permanent housing, and a resource center. It is expected to cost $64 million.
  • Gov. Dayton and state departments and agencies have set a goal to prevent and end homelessness for families with children and unaccompanied youth by 2020.
  • Opportunity Nation, a bipartisan, cross-sector national campaign, is working to expand economic opportunity and close the opportunity gap in America. They have adopted a shared plan that repairs the ladder of opportunity for 16- to 24-year-olds through a combination of community and employer action, and bipartisan reform of federal policies.

I have been fortunate to work with a number of organizations that continue the war on poverty. They include the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, Greater Twin Cities United Way, Catholic Charities, Neighborhood House, College Possible, MicroGrants, community action agencies throughout the state, and the Minnesota Literacy Council.

They bring resources and commitment to improving lives and providing opportunities for economic security. I know each reader can add to the list.

Unite for present-day response to LBJ

This 50th anniversary should be a time of renewal and recommitment to fighting poverty. It is a moral issue that our country, state, counties, cities and communities can unite around and take action. We can respond to LBJ’s call of 50 years ago.

It can also be a response the prophetic call today of Pope Francis, “… every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor and enabling them to be fully part of society.”

Jim Scheibel, a former mayor of St. Paul, is Executive in Residence, School of Business, Hamline University. 


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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 01/08/2014 - 10:46 am.

    renewal and recommitment?

    Would this be renewal and recommitment to the failed policies of the last 50 years?

    • Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 01/08/2014 - 12:07 pm.

      It depends on what you define as success

      Is there anyone who does not agree that in the last 50 years, the USA has become the most powerful and prosperous country in the history of the world? I’d like to hear from anyone who thinks otherwise and why.

      If that’s the case, how can anyone say the policies of the last 50 years have been a failure? I think some policies have certainly failed but it depends by what you define as success. For the past fifty years, the Right has defined success as returning to “laissez faire capitalism” but this time it would be different. Instead of excluding the vast majority from the bounty hogged by the few the first time this experiment was tried from 1865-1929, we would all be included this time. President Ron Reagan promised “all boats would rise” with his “supply side economics” aka “trickle down economics.” Since then, we have been treated to successive bouts of the same medicine – tax cuts for the wealthy, deregulation and the like- each time yielding the same results with the majority getting about the same as they got from 1865-1929. And we’re about back where we started class wise though some have moved up and others have moved down and most have stayed about where they were. I’d agree those policies have been a complete failure.

      The reason many have stayed about where they were or not moved down even more has been because of he Great Society programs. If “doing no harm” and preventing people from worse is success, then I’d say the Great Society has been a huge one.

    • Submitted by Pat Igo on 01/08/2014 - 12:45 pm.


      that is what the article is intended to do here. Recommit yourself to a failed policy that has cost trillions, yes trillions, the past 50 years and has failed miserably, as the writer himself points out.
      The horrendous achievement gap, right here in our Minnesota schools certainly has contributed to the increase in poverty, unemployment and hopelessness.
      Let’s get with the basic’s. Education. Let’s not renew or recommit to old failed policies, let’s get our leaders to commit to doing the right and moral thing. It all starts with education. I don’t know about you, but I tire of the same old excuses. What’s it going to take?

      • Submitted by Todd Adler on 01/09/2014 - 03:43 pm.


        It’s ironic that someone who advocates education can’t spell simple words or construct sentences with proper punctuation.

        “Let’s get with the basic’s. Education.” should read

        “Let’s get with the basics: education.”

        It reminds me of the bumper sticker “your in America. Learn English.” It makes me wince and chuckle every time I think of it.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 01/09/2014 - 05:22 pm.

      One of Reagan’s many stupid quips was

      “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.”

      Well, no.

      Poverty didn’t win. We surrendered bit by bit.

      During the heyday of the War on Poverty (1964-1973), the national poverty rate fell 42%. But the programs were dismantled bit by bit, partly because some of them offended the powers that be. They were all right, for example, with nutrition and health programs, but when VISTA and Legal Aid workers began telling inner city families that their landlords were legally obligated to keep housing habitable or informing Appalachian farmers about their rights in negotiations with strip mining companies, those moves offended some powerful people. Another part of the surrender was ideological: Republicans and conservative Democrats (same thing, as far as I can see) were all bootstraps types. In their minds, if you were poor, it was because you were either lazy or essentially inferior.

      Finally, when the Reagan administration came along, with its fairy tales about buying vodka with food stamps, the excuse was that there was “no money” for social programs (but, of course, there was money for the largest military buildup and the biggest tax cuts in American history).

      Back in the 1990s, PBS ran a program called “The War on Poverty.” Strangely, it is unavailable on either VHS or DVD. I even wrote to the producers, and they wrote back with vague wording about how the program “was no longer in circulation.” It really deserves to be resurrected.

      Thirty years on, “trickle down” economics has proved to be a pretty meager trickle. Industrial jobs, the kind that used to be the first step into the middle class, have been exported to the Third World by the hundreds of thousands, and more skilled jobs are following them. (Both Republicans and conservative Democrats are ardent advocates of so-called “free” trade.) Yet the right-wingers’ responses are superficial: keep wages low, encourage marriage, defund and privatize school systems, get rid of government workers, limit unemployment benefits to 26 weeks, deregulate everything, cut taxes for the wealthy and for corporations, and raise them for the “freeloaders who don’t have any skin in the game.”

      They remind me of nothing more than another “lost” TV program, a British documentary series called “Victorian Values,” which ran on Discovery in the days when it was still an intelligent channel. The episode about poverty showed how the Victorians believed that people would stop being poor if you just made life even more unpleasant for them. I see that attitude among right-wingers today.

      Right-wingers like to claim that Democrats advocate social welfare programs “to make people dependent” and win votes. The truth is rather different: the right wing is driving people away with its callousness and cluelessness.

  2. Submitted by Michael O'Connor on 01/08/2014 - 01:03 pm.

    Renewal and recommitment??

    Don’t 50 years and $15 trillion tell us something? How about Reassessment? Ah, how political ideology trumps reality!

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