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.
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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