As we celebrate 50 years of President Johnson's War on Poverty this week, many people are asking whether the war has been a success or not. In my opinion there is no question that the war on poverty has helped millions of people like me who were born into poverty to live in dignity and give us the opportunity to achieve the American Dream.
There is a narrative out there that giving people access to the social safety net including food, housing and medical care takes away the incentive to work and to live a better life. I disagree. People want something better for themselves and their children but sometimes because of circumstances -- and yes, sometimes because of poor decisions -- they end up in a bad place and need help. There is no shame in asking for help and trying to better yourself.
I experienced poverty for my entire childhood and I can tell you, I hated receiving food stamps and living in government housing. It made me feel ashamed and not good enough but living on the streets for several months and eating at soup kitchens was worse. Not only was my stomach empty but so was my spirit because it was hard to believe that I could have a better life for myself when I didn't know where my next meal was going to come from.
After I was taken in by my disabled grandmother, she needed the social safety net to care for me. I remember I would hide my face in the grocery store when we would have to use food stamps because I was so embarrassed but my grandmother refused to let me hide because there was no shame in accepting help when we needed it, but she also told me to remember that feeling so that when I got to be an adult I could make better choices and not need food stamps. I have remembered that feeling many times as an adult and I have been fortunate enough to not need feed stamps, welfare or Section 8 housing but I also make no apologies for needing those things as a child and using them to make a better life for myself.
I know there is a very real concern about creating a permanent underclass of individuals who lack ambition and who will live off the government for their entire lives. There will always be a small minority of people who don't do the right thing, but the vast majority of people who get government assistance are hardworking people who have fallen on hard times and only need the help for a few months. The 2008 recession has shown us that even educated, middle-class professionals can lose their jobs and need help to care for their children. There should be no shame in feeding your children.
My mother should have made better choices in her life, which I think she would freely admit, but we as Americans have stated that we will not allow children in the richest country in the world to go hungry and for that I will always be grateful. We have to ask ourselves, would it have been better to punish my mother for her poor decisions by not providing aid to our family or to make sure that I was fed, had a stable roof over my head and a chance at a better life? President Johnson answered that question in 1964 by saying that the war on poverty was not just to support people but to give people a chance at a better life.
I was given that chance and have utilized the programs that are part of the War on Poverty to become educated and to move firmly into the middle class. I am now a married and successful tax attorney and the first person in my family to live in my own home.
President Johnson died in 1973, a year before I was born, but his legacy of the War on Poverty gave millions of children like me a chance to live a better life. Poverty has not been solved but millions of lives have been enriched because of these government programs and that is a legacy to be proud of.
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