08/21/2014 06:34 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2014

Good Times and the War on Poverty

This week's commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, the first major piece of War on Poverty legislation, brings to mind the 1970s show Good Times. For the uninitiated, the general premise of the show was that a family of good people kept trying to do all the right things (working hard, guiding their children the best they could, going to school). Periodically they would start to get ahead, the audience would think that they were finally going to get out of the ghetto, but then the inevitable setback would occur.

The 1960s era, which is currently being relived through a series of 50th anniversary commemorations of significant milestones associated with President Johnson's Great Society and the civil rights movement, is an example of the "good times" -- progress was happening on multiple fronts for people of all races and in each region of the country. In addition to the Economic Opportunity Act, Johnson and the Congress delivered on a long string of legislative solutions impacting poverty and social inequality including the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Head Start, the Higher Education Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and Medicare and Medicaid.

Evidence of success can be seen from various angles. In the ten years after 1964, overall poverty dropped by 8 percentage points or more than 12.6 million people. Subsequent years delivered even more legislative shifts and improvements. Today, some subgroups are in a dramatically different place than they were back then -- for example, going into the 1960s the poverty rate amongst seniors was 35 percent and today it is 9 percent, for blacks those numbers are 55 percent and 27 percent respectively. And many Americans have personal stories of how programs like food stamps and Medicaid helped them get through temporary hardships while others like job training and student aid equated to lifelong improvements.

But these good times were too often punctuated by setbacks, much like the television show's theme song:

Temporary Layoffs.
Good Times.
Easy Credit Ripoffs.
Good Times.
Hanging in a Chow Line.
Good Times . . .

Unfortunately, those exact same challenges still exist and it's not hard to imagine some additional lines that could be added to a modern day reboot (and forgive me for not being a lyricist):

Wages keep stagnating.
Good Times.
Mass Incarceration.
Good Times.
Can't get citizenship documentation.
Good Times.

Like with the original song, some may point out the uneasy juxtaposition of the phrase "good times" with some clearly bad stuff, and in this case all the significant policy setbacks that have arisen since the launching of the war on poverty which are holding millions of people back in literal ghettos as well as virtual economic ones.

Some critics rewrite the War on Poverty so that every line is bad. They then suggest that we cancel the whole show. Maybe they would replace it with something different or maybe not, figuring that market and bootstrap pulling will fix things. This approach is far too cynical about what we have already accomplished and who we are as a nation. Ultimately, it would also rollback some existing gains.

Others appreciate, and work with, the uncomfortable juxtapositions and nuances. They choose to look at the good things came out of the War on Poverty and constantly work to make those elements even better. They ask questions like 1) If our intervention is increasing graduation rates by 20 percent, how can we make that 30-50 percent; or 2) Since this intervention is working for the 2 percent of low-income people who have access to it, how can we successfully make sure it is more widely available? Sometimes they just decide to scrap entire efforts. And, at other times, they brace themselves and jump-in to tackle new problems that emerge over time.

This has been the work of many policymakers, nonprofits, foundations, government agencies and others. It complements and supports the efforts of American families who, like the fictional Evans of Good Times, are working hard and daily trying to improve their circumstances despite the barriers that exist.

Celebrating those good efforts and the good results need not distract attention from the challenges that remain -- quite the opposite. A possible interpretation of the theme song and the show being is that you have to be grateful for the good times (the positives) in order to see your way through the remaining challenges.