Fifty years and one day after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty, LeBaron Harvey was slicing strawberries in Cathedral Kitchen, a Camden, N.J., nonprofit that feeds the poor.
Growing up in Camden, Harvey, 32, said he was kept alive by the food stamp program, greatly expanded under Johnson’s initiatives. Harvey learned to be a chef at Cathedral; he hopes to open an Asian/soul food restaurant.
“In the projects I come from, food stamps were a main means of income,” said Harvey, quick and efficient with the knife that’s become his weapon of choice in LBJ’s endless war. “After my (janitor) dad was laid off, our household collapsed. The program was all we had.”
Food stamps still are a major part of the safety net that Johnson began weaving in 1964.
Regardless, the political right insists that the war on poverty has been lost, with trillions of dollars wasted. Their proof? Nearly 50 million Americans continue to live in poverty.
Antipoverty advocates as well as poverty scholars disagree, saying the war transformed America, moving millions of people out of poverty and preventing countless others from falling into the abyss. Though poverty is high today, they say, conditions would have been much worse without Johnson’s intervention.
Giving voice to the poor in his State of the Union address Jan. 8, 1964, Johnson said: “This administration … declares unconditional war on poverty in America. The richest nation on Earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”
Under Johnson, a Democrat, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start and certain college-grant and school-nutrition programs were developed to assist the poor.
Then, during the Republican administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, the ideas posited during the war on poverty were expanded in bipartisan efforts not commonly seen today.
Both the earned income tax credit, a refund for low- and moderate-income workers, as well as Supplemental Security Income, which gives stipends to disabled and aged Americans with low income, were created. The modern WIC program (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) also was established under Nixon.
Marking the anniversary of Johnson’s speech, many Americans seem to be more at war with LBJ’s war than with poverty itself, advocates say.
Congress is poised to cut billions from the $80 billion-a-year food stamp program, now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). Other programs face cuts as well, as conservatives demand smaller government, as well as greater personal responsibility and self-sufficiency from the poor.
Poverty experts want SNAP kept intact.
And, scholars such as Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson assert, poverty isn’t caused by lack of character in people, but by structural matters beyond their control, such as deindustrialization and a global economy that has taken jobs from Americans. Beyond that, growing inequality and low-wage jobs doom people to lives of privation, he added.
Uninterested in political debate, Harvey said he could only describe what he has lived. “It was hard when I was a kid,” he recalled. “But my parents had help from the government that I didn’t realize.
“And now I know where the milk came from.”
In 1964, destitute patches of America seemed untouched by the 20th century.
Malnutrition was rampant in Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, along the Texas-Mexican border, on Indian reservations and in certain urban areas, historians say. In some places, people were starving, they add.
Many Americans didn’t have flush toilets, poor people were dying prematurely because of bad or nonexistent medical care, and endless numbers of impoverished women gave birth to low-weight and sickly babies, noted David Bartelt, emeritus professor of geography and urban studies at Temple University.
But within a decade of Johnson’s speech, conditions improved immensely, said economist James Ziliak, director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky, Lexington. “It was a combination of strong economic growth and antipoverty policies,” he said.
That the war on poverty failed is easy to show, conservatives say.
The official national poverty measure was 14 percent in 1967 and is about 15 percent today.
A Columbia University study released last month — and officially presented to President Barack Obama — suggests those numbers may be misleading.
A newer method of calculating poverty gives a more accurate picture of deprivation. The so-called supplemental poverty measure takes into account the benefits that the poor receive — including SNAP, tax credits, WIC and school meals. It also totes up how much a family pays to survive, including health care costs, taxes, child care and housing.
Looking through this new lens, Columbia researchers found that the poverty rate in 1967 was closer to 26 percent, while the rate in 2011 (the latest available) was 16 percent.
Given these calculations, researchers said, the war on poverty actually did have an effect, since poverty fell almost 40 percent.
Ultimately, said antihunger advocate Joel Berg, the war on poverty didn’t fail; it was abandoned, even by Democrats. Historians agree, pointing to the dismantling of cash welfare under President Bill Clinton.
Berg said that if penicillin were brought into a village to reduce disease, but it ran out, “it would be absurd to imply that penicillin wasn’t working in the first place.”
Disagreements between the right and left over how to deal with America’s poor will continue well beyond the 50th anniversary of Johnson’s call to arms. Even while touching off the war on poverty in his historic 1964 speech, Johnson recognized that:
“If we fail, if we fritter and fumble away our opportunity in … senseless quarrels between Democrats and Republicans … history will rightfully judge us harshly.”