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The War on Poverty in America: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow


Fifty years ago, President Johnson launched an unconditional War on Poverty in an attempt to relieve and abolish it. 

Back in 1964 in NYC, adults probably would have learned about the details contained in LBJ’s anti-poverty program by reading about the President’s speech in one of eight different daily newspapers they could have purchased off a newsstand. Kids who managed to stay awake in civics class would be required to debate the pros and cons of the initiative in a school-wide assembly. Families affluent enough to own a colored TV set would have gathered around to hear what Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley or Howard K. Smith had to say. 

Although only ten days into 2014, both established and new media outlets are awash with reporting on the current state of poverty in America. Politicians, pundits and policy experts of every stripe are weighing in on this domestic policy battle where the names on the casualties’ list, now, more than ever, could be someone we know.  A side-by-side reading of op-eds written by Paul Krugman and Michael Gerson temper the sharp edges of both writers and illuminate the issue of what can be done to overcome poverty.     

Annie Lowrey relies on an expansive use of census data to reveal the state of American poverty today and, in the process, depicts how both Republicans and Democrats are attempting to use the issue of poverty and growing inequality in the U.S. to gain political advantage.  Dylan Matthews provides historical context on how the 1964 program came about and points his readers in the direction of Trends in Poverty with an Anchored Supplemental Poverty Measure, important recent research packed with strong evidence that federal safety-net programs make significant progress in easing the plight of the poor.   

The White House Council of Economic Advisors released a report showing that the percent of the population in poverty has declined from 25.8 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012.  Read President Obama’s Statement on the 50th Anniversary on the War on Poverty here.  On Wednesday, Senator Marco Rubio and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor gave separate speeches on how and why the federal War on Poverty has failed.  House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, in a conversation with NBC News anchor Brian Williams, rebukes the safety net programs supported by the Obama Administration—arguing they erode civil society by prioritizing redistribution over community engagement.

Pundits on both sides of the issue ramped up the diatribe this week dueling over the merits or failed promise of government assistance.  Robert Rector contends LBJ’s War on Poverty is a lost war—claiming the U.S. has spent $20.7 trillion in 2011 dollars over the past 50 years and has nothing to show for its investment.  Michael Tomasky insists anti-poverty programs have succeeded—even in the face of a well-coordinated, relentless backlash against them commencing in 1981.  Mike Konczal lays out a roadmap for how liberals can offset the right-wing’s talking points about the failure of Big Government.  His essay in the New Republic is a must read for anyone serious about taking up this cause.  Cal Thomas, echoing Paul Ryan, asserts a reliance on government assistance undermines an individual’s sense of personal responsibility. 

Thomas advocates staying in school; getting married before having children; staying married; and working hard, saving and investing.  No, Thomas never mentions Horatio Alger; Alger’s name never comes up, but he does call attention to an alarming trend contributing to America’s persistently high rate of poverty—the rise of unplanned pregnancies and single motherhood.  For a powerful essay that addresses the issue of fractured family structures and concludes poverty causes the breakdown in the family and not the other way around read: It's Time to Stop Blaming Poverty on the Decline in Marriage by Emily Badger.

In a report to be released on Sunday, The Shriver Report:  A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, Next Generation’s Ann O’Leary delves deeply into this trend’s causes and effects—analyzing its implications and how they affect children and our nation’s economy.  Maria Shriver’s strong, straightforward defense of the report’s primary focus—the challenges faced by low-income women—appears in The Atlantic.  Before you read it here, consider this: today only a fifth of our families have a male breadwinner and a female homemaker and women comprise nearly two-thirds of the minimum-wage workers in the U.S.  

Finally, Governor Jerry Brown released his 2014-15 State Budget.  The Wall Street Journal describes it as a balancing act between increased spending on education, debt repayment and a call for fiscal restraint.  The Los Angeles Times lists the Governor’s priorities in this spending blueprint as funding for schools, universities, environmental initiatives and programs for California's poor.  The proposal allocates no funding for transitional kindergartenRead this for Next Generation’s Rey Fuentes’ preliminary breakdown of the budget, and why he’s convinced the Governor’s refusal to invest in early education is a failure to invest in California’s future.  


This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.  It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.” President Lyndon B. Johnson's Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union, January 8, 1964. 

In the richest nation on Earth, far too many children are still born into poverty, far too few have a fair shot to escape it...That does not mean, as some suggest, abandoning the War on Poverty.  In fact, if we hadn’t declared “unconditional war on poverty in America,” millions more Americans would be living in poverty today.”  A statement issued by President Obama on the 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty. 

“…the country has invested $20.7 trillion in 2011 dollars over the past 50 years. What does America have to show for its investment? Apparently, almost nothing: The official poverty rate persists with little improvement." A statement contained in an Op-Ed written by Robert Rector appearing in the Wall Street Journal. 

“This nation cannot have sustained economic prosperity and well-being until women’s central role is recognized and women’s economic health is used as a measure to shape policy. “ Maria Shriver in an essay announcing the release of the latest edition of The Shriver Report, A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink.  

We are in the midst of a national crisis, where in too many cases, parents who had not intended to get pregnant are unprepared for the responsibilities associated with raising a child alone…We must find a way to concretely tackle these challenges if we aim to break the cycle of poverty for families in America.” Next Generation’s Ann O’Leary pinpointing the main issues she addresses in The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink. 

Raising the minimum wage may poll well, but having a job that pays $10 an hour is not the American dream.”  An excerpt from a speech delivered by Senator Marco Rubio where he claimed the federal War on Poverty failed. 

 “…children are voiceless, so they are the age group most likely to be poor today. That’s a practical and moral failure.”  Nicholas Kristof writing in the New York Times on how the needs of children have been left behind in the War on Poverty.”

"For this year, there's very good news.  Good news in the fiscal stability and resources available for the state of California, but also cautionary warnings that, by no means, are we out of the wilderness." Governor Jerry Brown during a Thursday morning press conference in Sacramento where he unveiled his 2014-15 State Budget. 


Safety Net Cuts Poverty Nearly In Half.


Source:  Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, printed in Mother Jones, January 8, 2014. 


Text of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union. Source: LBJ Presidential Library.  January 8, 1964. 

Op-Ed.  War on Poverty -- it's not a lost cause.  Ann Stevens and Marianne Page.  Los Angeles Times.  January 8, 2014. 

America’s next crisis: Tens of millions falling into poverty.  Steve Rosenfeld.  SLATE.  January 8, 2014. 

The War on Poverty: Not Just a Liberal Campaign.  Shawn Fremstad.  PBS NewsHour-Business Desk.  January 9, 2014. 

Op-Ed.  The War on Poverty.  Paul Krugman.  New York Times.  January 9, 2014. 

Op-Ed. New tactics for a renewed War on Poverty.  Michael Gerson.  Washington Post.  January 9, 2014. 

50 Years Later, War on Poverty is a Mixed Bag.  Annie Lowrey.  New York Times.  January 5, 2014. 

Everything you need to know about the war on poverty.  Dylan Matthews.  Washington Post.  January 8, 2014. 

REPORT. Trends in Poverty with an Anchored Supplemental Poverty Measure.  Christopher Wilmer, Liana Fox, Irv Garfinkel, Neeraj Kaushal, Jane Waldfogel.  December 5, 2013. 

The War on Poverty 50 Years Later:  A Progress Report.  The Council of Economic Advisors.  The White House.  January 2014. 

Statement by the President on the 50th Anniversary on the War on Poverty.  Office of the Press Secretary.  The White House.  January 8, 2014.

Rubio: War on Poverty has been lost.  Jackie Kucinich.  Washington Post.  January 8, 2014. 

Cantor Touts School Choice to Fight Poverty.  Russell Berman.  The Hill.  January 8, 2014. 

Paul Ryan: War on poverty failed.  Jonathan Topaz.  Politico.  January 9, 2014.  Op-Ed.  How the War on Poverty was Lost.  Robert Rector.  Wall Street Journal.  January 7, 2014. 

Marco Rubio is Wrong:  The War on Poverty Worked.  Michael Tomasky.  The Daily Beast. January 6, 2014

The War on Poverty Turns 50:  Three Lessons for Liberals Today.  Mike Konczal.  The New Republic.  January 7, 2014. 

Op Ed.  Time for new weapons in war on poverty.  Cal Thomas.  The Daily Journal.  January 9, 2014. 

It's Time to Stop Blaming Poverty on the Decline in Marriage.  Emily Badger.  The Atlantic Cities.  January 8, 2014.


PRESS RELEASE.  Shriver Report About Women in Poverty Shines a Spotlight on Unmarried Births and Single Motherhood.  Anastasia Ordonez.  Next Generation.  January 10, 2014. 

The Shriver Report:  A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back From The Brink.  January 10, 2014. 

The Female Face of Poverty.  Maria Shriver.  The Atlantic.  January 8, 2014.


Governor Brown Proposes 2014-2015 Budget

California Budget Increases Spending as State Enjoys a Surplus.  Alejandro Lazo.  Wall Street Journal.  January 9, 2014. 

Jerry Brown unveils California budget blueprint at news conference.  Chris Megerian.  L.A. Times.  January 9, 2014. 

Jerry Brown’s $154.9 Billion Budget Will Propose Repaying School Funds, Bolstering Services.  Capitol Alert-SacBee.  January 9, 2014.

Senate Democrats introduce bill to expand transitional kindergarten.  Lillian Mongeau.  EdSource.  January 7, 2014. 

Early Ed is part of the State's future.  Rey Fuentes.  Next Generation.  January 9, 2014.  

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