LBJ's war on poverty, 50 years later


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist SCOTT MCKENNEY

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on January 8, 2014 at 9:27 PM

Updated Thursday, Apr 3 at 12:55 PM

AUSTIN -- James Ward's tiny cupboard has enough room for a few weeks of food.

After years without a steady income, the canned vegetables and packs of pasta are part of a new start.

"It's been hard," said Ward, who fist became homeless after the restaurant he worked for went bankrupt. Ward worked jobs in maintenance and security before finding himself homeless again and beset by worsening health issues. He's mobility-limited since having both hips replaced in 2006. Ward also suffers from diabetes, foot trouble and carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands.

Along with housing assistance organized through his church, Ward has relied largely on disability benefits through the Social Security Administration's Supplemental Security Income program, Medicaid and food stamps to get by. He now volunteers part of his time to the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas, helping those facing similar circumstances. Without access to such programs, Ward says things would be very different.

"I'd be out on the street. I'd be homeless again," said Ward.

It's been 50 years since President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared war on poverty in his Jan. 8, 1964 State of the Union Address. The subsequent legislation led to the creation of Medicare and Medicaid, and expanded food stamps and Social Security as well as early education under the Head Start program.

"I think that the food stamp program has been one of the most successful answers to the poverty issue," said Kathy Green, director of advocacy and public policy at the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas. "It has allowed people who may have been on the lines of poverty to not fall deeper into poverty."

The organization feeds close to 45,000 people a week, many of them children, across 21 Central Texas counties. It also connects clients with education opportunities and access to long-term resources to reduce the chances of becoming repeat customers. Green says most of the people the organization serves are short-term clients.

"Hunger is an economic condition," said Green. "If you are hungry, you are probably facing a whole lot of choices that are unfortunate that you have to make on a daily basis, such as whether to feed your kids, whether to pay your electric bill, whether you can put gas in your car or put milk in your refrigerator."

While food stamp programs such the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have been favorite targets of fiscal conservatives, Green said the amount of fraud and waste has been overstated. While she acknowledged large government-run programs do suffer from varying degrees of inefficiency, she also said the food stamp program has been spectacularly effective.

"If those programs had not been put in place, we'd be in much worse shape than we are now," said Green. "Are we in perfect shape? By no means. We have so much left to do, but those programs have been a foundation for the answer to poverty."

"It has created a safety net for many people over the years that has allowed people to pull themselves out of poverty," said Jo Kathryn Quinn, executive director of Caritas of Austin.

Like Johnson's War on Poverty, Caritas is also celebrating its 50th anniversary. Quinn said over the years she's been troubled by the extent to which income inequality has led to an evaporating middle class.

"The face of poverty is becoming more and more common, and the face of poverty now includes lots of people that work full time," said Quinn. "In the 60s, when we launched the war on poverty, that was not the case. People that worked full time were not living in poverty. Now people who work 40, even 60 hours a week, because of low wages, are still living in poverty."

Caritas client Ty Follett said organizations like Caritas make the difference between hope and a life of misery on the streets. Follett receives Medicare benefits to pay for expensive medication, without which he says he'd be unable to function on a normal level. With the help of such programs, Follett said he's now able focus his attention on something other than day-to-day survival.

"I have goals. One day I do want to open a business," said Follet. "Just move on, don't fall back where I came from. Just move ahead."

"From the first day 50 years ago of the declared War on Poverty, this has been controversial," said professor Jeremi Suri, the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs.

An author, historian and expert on American and world politics, Suri said the issue remains controversial day.

"People in the Republican party have been opposed to what they see as big government spending," said Suri. "People in the Democratic party have argued that the wrong people have received the money. Some have argued it gives too much power to the president, some too much power to Congress. So, this has been controversial from the very beginning."

From a historian's perspective, Suri credited the War on Poverty with greatly reducing poverty among older people through Medicare and Social Security, as well as radically reducing malnutrition. It also greatly expanded educational opportunities for young children through Head Start. Yet Suri says the benefits designed to allow people to be "work able" have failed to eliminate structural unemployment, and society itself remains increasingly unequal.

So, are we winning or losing?

"In some ways we're winning, and in some ways we're still losing," said Quinn.

"I think we are gaining," said Green. "You can't say that we've won the war, but I think we've done a lot to make it so much better and we're so much further along than we could be."

"We are losing if the standard for success is to completely eliminate poverty," said Suri. "There is still a great deal of poverty in our society, a great deal of suffering in our society among various groups, probably less than in the past but there's still a great deal there. On the other hand, we've won in the sense that very few Americans go to bed with empty stomachs."

"This is a perfect time to discuss the war on poverty regardless of one's particular political affiliation," Suri said. "Fifty years ago today, Americans looked out at the world and said, 'We are living better than ever before, but not everyone is equally benefiting from that. How can we make this more of a society for opportunity?'"

Whether the policies that resulted from Johnson's War on Poverty were the best to combat the problem, Suri said the question posed by Johnson at the time was the right one to ask.

"It's the same question we need to ask today," Suri said. "We have so much wealth in our society, but we can look out and see so many people who are not benefiting from that wealth, people who are not unleashing their innovative potential. How can we do a better job? That's the central question of the war on poverty. How can we become a better society?"

"We're not asking for a handout," said Ward. "We're just asking for a little help to help us get started."