Today, we mark the 50th anniversary of the launch of the “War on Poverty.” In his State of the Union address on Jan. 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson outlined plans to
“help each and every American citizen fulfill his basic hopes … his hopes for a full-time job on full-time pay; his hopes for a decent home for his family in a decent community; his hopes for a good school for his children with good teachers; and his hopes for security when faced with sickness or unemployment or old age.”
It remains a bold vision for our country.
Five decades later, the poverty rate is down only slightly, from 19 percent to 15 percent, a figure we can all agree is still too high. The rates are even higher for children, for single mothers and for African Americans and Latinos. And the very benchmarks President Johnson identified–a good full-time job, a good school, economic security in times of difficulty–are increasingly out of reach for working families everywhere.
At the most basic levels, there has been progress–malnutrition is no longer a widespread problem and infant mortality has fallen. While we should celebrate this legacy of the War on Poverty, we should be much closer than we are to President Johnson’s goal of eradicating poverty.
Instead, too many Americans are hurting. Millions of people can’t find work. Millions more have low-paying jobs and are barely scraping by. I read during the nationwide fast-food strikes in December about Nijah Pretzer, who is trying to raise her two sons, ages 5 and 7, on $7.99 an hour working at Dunkin’ Donuts. “We need to be able to maintain our lives,” she said. “I’m not asking for anything special. I’m just asking to maintain myself.”
While Nijah and others like her have gone years without a raise during the economic recovery, wealth has become more concentrated in the hands of the well-to-do than any time since before the Great Depression. In 2012, for the first time, the top 10 percent of Americans took more than half of all income.
It is time to acknowledge that to win the War on Poverty, we must wage a battle against income inequality.
President Obama says inequality is the “defining challenge of our time.” It is highly encouraging that he plans to unveil proposals to combat inequality during his own State of the Union address Jan. 28. But Americans should take to heart something else LBJ said: that although the War on Poverty is be national in scope, it “will not be won … in Washington [D.C.]. It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House.”
The same can be said about the battle against income inequality. Workers across the country know this, and in 2013, they came together as never before, in their own communities, to fight for better wages, improved working conditions and the kind of economic security that Americans from all walks of life deserve.
Fast-food and retail workers, security officers, home care workers, adjunct professors, warehouse workers and many others are poised to take back the ground they’ve lost and to win their share of the American Dream. It will be a challenging fight but working families will win the battle against inequality–and in so doing, they will put America back on the path to winning the War on Poverty and fulfilling the vision laid out 50 years ago.