On January 8, 1964, in a joint session of Congress, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced "This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America." Johnson acknowledged, "It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice," however "we shall not rest until that war is won." Johnson believed the "richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it."
Less than a year later, in his Nobel Prize speech, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. called on President Johnson and the United States to expand the struggle against poverty. "The time has come for an all-out world war against poverty. The rich nations must use their vast resources of wealth to develop the underdeveloped, school the unschooled, and feed the unfed. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for 'the least of these.'"
Forty-six years later, in September 2010, the United States Census Bureau announced that the war on poverty was finally over - and that poverty had won! Republicans in the House and Senate, and many moderate and conservative Democrats, have decided that welfare, unemployment, and job programs are too expensive and need to be cut back or abandoned all together. Of course, none of them is poor.
Poverty's victory is staggering. According to the U.S. Census Bureau:
* In 2009, four million additional Americans slipped below the official poverty line, bringing the total number of Americans living in poverty to 44 million people. This was the highest number of poor people in the United States in fifteen years. For them, the safety net, sliced to pieces when the Democratic Clinton's "reinvented" welfare in 1996 in order to hold onto the White House, is virtually non-existent.
* The number of people who are officially poor does not include millions of individuals and families scrapping by because they moved in with family members and friends. Twelve percent of the population of the United States now lives in multi-family "double-up" households.
* Millions of people just above the poverty line are barely making it. A family of four or five with two minimum wage wage-earners working at McDonald's or Wal-Mart is considered above the poverty line but are one check or illness away from disaster. They have no margin for error. Three million families are above the poverty line because one member is temporarily collecting unemployment insurance, a benefit that can end soon if Republicans and conservative Democrats succeed in blocking "extended" benefits. A record number of working families have applied for food stamps; over 40 million people now receive benefits just to provide meals for their kids.
* The poverty figures also do not include the 10 million people living on disability insurance. Between 1970 and 2009, the number of people receiving DI benefits more than tripled, from 2.7 million to 9.7 million, largely because of the decimation of other welfare programs. However, by 2018, the trust fund established to provide disability payments will be exhausted.
* Despite President Obama's ballyhooed health care reform and the promise of health care for all Americans, the number of uninsured keeps increasing. Seventeen percent of the population, 51 million people, currently have no medical coverage, up from 46 million before the reforms were passed. Six and a half million Americans lost their health insurance when they lost their jobs during the "Great Recession."
* The rest of the working class is not doing so well economically either. Overall family income declined by 5% between 1999 to 2009, the first decade long decline since statistics were tallied at the start of the twentieth century.
* Young adults with children are the hardest hit by the rise in poverty. One in five children in the United States now live in poverty. The hardest hit in this group are Black and Latino children. Poverty is not color blind. While less than ten percent of the White population falls below the poverty line, one-in-four Blacks and Latinos in the United States are officially considered poor. This is the worst betrayal of the promises made by Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King.
As a teacher, parent, and grandparent, one of my greatest concerns is the kind of future being offered to our children. Politicians talk about 21st century education for 21st century jobs, but have no idea what either of them will look like. They tout miracle cures for poor academic performance by many minority youth, promote non-stop testing, and blame teachers for all the problems of the universe.
But as far as I am concerned, there is no mystery why disproportionate numbers of Black and Latino students do poorly in school. When their families teeter over the abyss of economic catastrophe or have already fall in, when children are hungry or sick, when all they see in the neighborhood are people like themselves without work, when even people with jobs can barely make ends meet, it is hard to buy into the idea that doing better in school will pay off in the long run. For them, there is no meaningful long run.
I am not ready to give up yet. On October 2, I plan to march in Washington as part of "One Nation Working Together," a demonstration sponsored by among other groups the NAACP, 1199 SEIU, National Council of La Raza, Green for All, Center for Community Change, United States Student Association, and the AFL-CIO. Marchers are demanding jobs and sustainable economic recovery, cuts in military spending to fund community needs, an end to the U.S. war and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and peace abroad and renewable energy at home
If parents, teachers, workers, and community residents don't fight back against failed government policies and inaction, how are we going to make a difference in the lives of young people? How will we convince them to make the extra effort to do well in school, especially when after forty years of frustration and non-action, the United States surrenders in the "War on Poverty"?