By William Spriggs
President Lyndon Johnson announcing in his 1964 State of the Union an “unconditional war on poverty in America,” 50 years ago. He said, “Our chief weapons in a more pinpointed attack will be better schools, and better health and better homes, and better training and better job opportunities to help more Americans, especially young Americans, escape from squalor and misery and unemployment rolls where other citizens help to carry them.” It is this myriad approach that many rail against today, believing that efforts such as Medicaid, Head Start, federal training programs and urban renewal failed.
But, it is very important to put Johnson’s ideas in context. First, it is important to remember that in 1964, the United States was in a Cold War where new nations, freed from the yoke of colonialism, faced competing ideologies between the western capitalist countries and the Soviet Union. In his speech, Johnson said, “We have in 1964 a unique opportunity and obligation—to prove the success of our system; to disprove those cynics and critics at home and abroad who question our purpose and our competence.” That is, America felt it must prove that a market-based economy could do more than produce poverty and wretched conditions for workers, but could provide decent lives for all citizens.
Second, it is important to remember that in 1964, over 19 years since the end of World War II, the economic experience of Americans was equally rising incomes for rich and poor families alike. The escalator of income was in the up direction, creating a nation of hope. The ugliest divide, as Johnson noted, was “Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope—some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both.”
Well, our current Congress is going down in history as having done nothing. But, if it is to serve the people, it must put the income escalator back into the “up” position to end poverty, and it must end its gridlock to put the jobs deficit and unemployed workers ahead of fiscal deficits and protecting the rich from paying its fair share.
Last year, the Census reported that more than 2 million of America’s families, headed by someone younger than 65, had someone who worked full-time, year round but languished in poverty, and another 87,000 who had two workers who worked full-time, year round. This is possible because the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour gives an income of $15,080 a year, $3,400 short of the poverty line for a family of three. Clearly, we cannot be serious about ending poverty as long as those who get employment still find themselves below poverty. It is common sense, and it is what economic research clearly indicates. In all, more than 5.4 million poor families in America had someone working at least part of the year. They were constrained by a weak labor market that is failing to provide enough work hours. That means, as Johnson urged, we must get serious about full employment. But, since half those families have full-time, year-round workers, full employment alone—a job alone will not do.
For the 62% of poor working families that include workers, we must raise the minimum wage. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 80 percent of households with children receiving income support—Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), housing or Medicaid—are working families. And, the University of California, Berkeley’s Labor Center reports that nearly $7 billion a year is spent on income support to front-line fast-food workers, who also need a raise.
In his special message to Congress on the Economic Opportunity Act, Johnson said, “Because it is right, because it is wise, and because, for the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty.”