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The True Legacy of the War on Poverty

01/06/2014 10:38 am ET | Updated Mar 08, 2014

This Wednesday's 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's "unconditional war on poverty" has sparked deep divisions over how far we've come, still have to go. It also raises important questions about what government accomplished then and what it could accomplish now. Typical coverage includes the Brookings Institute column, "The War On Poverty: What Went Wrong" or this from Sunday's NY Times, "50 Years Later, War on Poverty Is a Mixed Bag."

But much of the commentary I've seen so far misses the point. The actual text of LBJ's speech includes page after page describing the scourge of poverty and possible legislative solutions. Imagine any president of the last 30 years devoting this much time in a nationally televised talk to this issue. Today's elite industry of pollsters and political pros would consider it the height of political naiveté.

Ironically, Johnson was the consummate political animal, clever and calculating, a master vote-counter and arm-twister. But he also combined sensitivity to public opinion with the courage and fortitude to follow his own gut instincts about what was right and necessary. Too many political leaders today suffer from a colossal, poll-induced failure of imagination.

In 1964, I was the impressionable age of nine and, as such, I remember the 1960s as a time when anything seemed possible. Ordinary citizens mobilized in numbers large enough to end wars, enact civil rights, and bring down presidents. The middle class felt secure enough to fight for something larger than itself.

Many leaders I admire most were of generations inspired by that time: Peter and Marian Wright Edelman, Representatives Rosa DeLauro and Jim McGovern, Governor Martin O'Malley, Irwin Redliner, Bob Greenstein, Jeff Bridges, Harris Wofford, Alan Khazei, Michael Brown and Wendy Kopp.

What will children today be inspired to fight for over the next 50 years? Sequestration budget-cutting formulas? Increasing the power of the NSA to monitor our every breath? Negotiating reductions in the SNAP food stamp program? Have we lost the imagination to ask "what if?" and the capacity to inspire today's youth to fight for what they believe?

Two weeks after Johnson's speech, journalist Dwight MacDonald wrote in the New Yorker that "mass poverty will continue in this country for a long time. The more it is reduced, the harder it is to keep on reducing it. The poor, having dwindled from two-thirds of the population in 1936 to one-quarter today, no longer are a significant political force."

Two months ago, Marian Wright Edelman lamented that there is 50 percent more child poverty today than when the Children's Defense Fund was founded. "Each day in America 2,723 babies are born into poverty."

Just as we have learned that solving poverty is complex, through our No Kid Hungry campaign, we have learned and proven that feeding a child is not. School breakfast, summer meals, and other food and nutrition programs work, not only feeding kids but strengthening their ability to learn and helping to break the cycle of poverty. We have the resources, but we must marshal the will to connect children to them. Child hunger in America is a crucial element of poverty -- both cause and effect -- that can be solved.

Once we do, we may realize that, whether it is 1964 or 2014, it is always worth imagining a world not yet within our grasp but within our ability to achieve. That is the lasting legacy of the war on poverty.

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