THE BLOG

We Didn't Start the War on Poverty, but We Owe It to Our Children to Win It

02/13/2015 03:51 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015
Martin Wimmer via Getty Images

Fifty-one years after it began, America's "War on Poverty" continues to inspire every emotion except neutrality.

Critics assail President Lyndon Johnson's plan to "not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it" as a stunning failure that destroyed the social fabric of our country and is responsible for everything from the high rate of black incarceration to the rise of single-parent households and "supernourished" children who, though poor, eat so well that they "grow up to be, on average, one inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than the GIs who stormed the beaches of Normandy in World War II."

To be sure, the 1960s "War on Poverty" cut a wide path and included initiatives to expand Social Security benefits for retirees, widows and people with disabilities; create Medicare and Medicaid to support the health needs of the poor and elderly; and make permanent a food-stamp program that was conceived by FDR during the late 1930s and supported by businesses. The battle lines continue to be drawn around these efforts in Washington, D.C., and in living rooms across America.

Yet there is more agreement about another initiative of the "War on Poverty" -- expansion of educational opportunities to address the relationship between educational achievement and poverty. According to the U.S. Council of Economic Advisers, in 1959 high-school dropouts were 3.8 times more likely than college graduates to be poor; by 2012 they were 6.1 times more likely to be poor.

What most people don't realize, however, is how close the United States came to tackling the problem. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) helped make strides, only to lose ground in the conservative surge that began with the Reagan administration and continues to this day through efforts to cut welfare, childcare subsidies, resources for urban schools, and college Pell grants, among other things.

In her award-winning 2010 book The Flat World and Education: How America's Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future, Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University writes that the War on Poverty "increased investments in urban and rural schools, and substantial gains were made in equalizing both educational inputs and outcomes. Gaps in school spending, access to qualified teachers, and access to higher education were smaller in the mid-to-late 1970s than they had been before and, in many states, than they have been since."

The Elementary and Secondary Assistance Act enabled desegregation and led to "the development of magnet schools, and other strategies to improve urban and poor rural schools," Darling-Hammond writes.

The pay-off was big:

By the mid-1970s, urban schools spent as much as suburban schools, and paid their teachers as well; perennial teacher shortages had nearly ended; and gaps in educational attainment had closed substantially.... Improvements in educational achievement for students of color followed. In reading, large gains in black students' performance throughout the 1970s and early 1980s reduced the achievement gap considerably, cutting it nearly in half in just 15 years. The achievement gap in mathematics also narrowed sharply between 1973 and 1986. Financial aid for higher education was sharply increased, especially for need-based scholarships and loans. For a brief period in the mid-1970s, black and Hispanic students were attending college at rates comparable to those of whites....

We seemed to be winning then. But today, some 30 years later, it's fair to say that we're losing the battle:

  • One third of white students in the 12th grade scored at or above proficiency in mathematics on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, compared with 7 percent of black students.
  • In reading, 47 percent of whites reached proficiency, compared with 16 percent of blacks.
  • The poverty rate for blacks was 27.2 percent in 2013, compared with 9.6 percent for whites, according to the 2014 U.S. Census report.
  • While the racial gap in college enrollment has narrowed, graduation rates are another story: Less than 25 percent of part-time students complete a bachelor's degree within eight years, and minority students are more likely to attend school part-time, many for financial reasons.

February is Black History Month, when the contributions of black Americans are celebrated and the challenges of being black in America -- over 400 years of enslavement and 150 years since emancipation -- are considered.

Fair or not, the weight of history falls heavily on the living. A nation founded on the inalienable rights of humankind and the notion of social justice must work to provide opportunities for all children -- not just mine. Leadership and resources are needed to support those who have been shortchanged by family circumstances -- by poverty and the remaining vestiges of racism in our country.

 At the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, we know that children who struggle with poverty, neglect or abuse, and the damaging cognitive effects of stress are like all other children. They want to be happy and the type of person they themselves respect. They want to be loved by their families and cared about in their communities. They want to be viewed by the world as good and aspiring people. Just ask any young child.

Can't we, as a nation, help them write more promising life stories for themselves? We made strong progress in the decade or so following the "War on Poverty," and if we regain the political will, we can do so again.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at e_cooper@nuatc.org. He tweets as @ECooper4556.