01/08/2014 04:50 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

50 Years and Counting: Continuing Our War Against Poverty

usa poverty

It is one of the most complicated maladies of our time -- it affects an individual and cripples a nation. Its causes, just as its victims, are many. Its etiology is as nuanced as the historical, economic, sociological and cultural narratives that characterize its hosts. It is lethal, enveloping, and feared. It is absolute and relative, and often unwittingly cast upon a person at birth.

It stares at us everyday -- hungry and ruthless -- but continues to elude us. It is readily apparent, but difficult to measure. Fifty years ago, it was declared an enemy of the United States, but it still manages to claim the lives of children and adults. Americans discuss it at lavish dinner parties and food pantries alike, and some even dare to deny its ubiquity.

And, if you are fortunate enough, it is easy to forget. For those whose worlds alter between planned suburban communities and college campuses, it is something discussed only on the news.

It is poverty. And unless we treat it as we would a national security threat of utmost concern, poverty's ravaging impact will continue to wreak havoc on countless individuals.

But how do we combat such a complex monster?

Fifty years ago, President Johnson's declaration of war on poverty resulted in an appropriately diverse response. Programs like Head Start were created, along with the addition of economic concepts like the poverty line to the lexicon of our federal agencies. In the war's infancy, LBJ and Congress supplied the government with a diverse arsenal of weapons with which to fight a confusing enemy. As we fought this seemingly nebulous foe, our understanding of poverty continued to mature.

However, our arsenal was not complete.

LBJ declared that we might begin combatting poverty by employing youth, developing underdeveloped regions of the country, creating government work programs, strengthening our food stamp programs, increasing unemployment insurance, raising the minimum wage, bettering our schools, providing greater infrastructure -- such as hospitals, project housing and libraries, introducing an insurance program that would eventually become Medicare, upgrading our public transportation system and lowering taxes. All of this, LBJ warranted, would comprise a sound first step toward ridding our nation of poverty.

In short, a complicated problem called for a complicated solution.

However, decades of disagreement over the nature of this war meant that our arsenal could not advance in a way necessary for the successful defeat of poverty.

That is, we failed to evolve.

We can combat the behemoth that is poverty by permitting our mechanisms that fight poverty to evolve at a rate commensurate with the evolution of our understanding of poverty. While economists' ability to objectively draw poverty lines around our nation's communities fifty years ago continues to serve as an important baseline for federal agencies and lawmakers, the United States must devote more resources to creatively addressing a pervasive and ever-changing issue.

This means increased support for conversations that humanize an issue easily obfuscated by complicated terminology and obscure data. It was for this reason that Dasani's story, recounted by the New York Times, captivated so many Americans. For younger Americans, Dasani is a classmate. For others of us, Dasani is our neighbor, our family member, our student and our responsibility.

This is not to say that these tools for studying poverty should be eschewed. They are invaluable components of our national conversation. However, they are not necessarily accessible to the average American. High college entrance exam scores should not be a requisite for a meaningful conversation about a national crisis.

Our current perception of poverty is just as problematic as our lackluster means for addressing it. Increased support for the eradication of poverty must inherently encompass increased support for the uncomfortable conversations Americans must have with one another about race, prejudice and inequality that lend themselves to the way we view poverty.

For most Americans, this means access to an education that reflects as much. This, of course, seems to lend itself to a confounding problem: Americans in the grips of poverty are most often those individuals who have access to our country's worst education systems.

How, then, can we possibly expect success to emerge from such a vicious cycle? For this, we must turn to the man who provided us with awareness -- an arsenal -- in the first place. Said President Johnson in his State of the Union address that served as a declaration of war against poverty:

Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.

This year ought to be the year in which our leaders charge us with the responsibility to renew a national conversation about poverty, and the way we think about it. By treating schools as our greatest weapons against poverty, we can continue our fight. Conversations about the myriad factors that contribute to poverty -- those that grace many college campuses around the country -- must be made more accessible to the average American.

This means that the conversation must start in classrooms earlier. Groups like Kids Can Make a Difference, TeachUNICEF and Sesame Street have provided some great resources for teachers and parents to help them begin teaching their students or children about poverty. As students become older and can begin to discuss the complicated factors that contribute to poverty, projects like Teaching Tolerance -- run by the Southern Poverty Law Center -- help students further explore poverty in this country. The commonality among all of these projects is their commitment to humanizing the issue of poverty -- telling a story, making the issue relatable -- all various means of reminding us that poverty occupies the house down the street, and is not an issue relegated to countries far away from our own.

Resources and projects like these ought to be integrated into curricula around our nation's schools.

We have worked hard toward attempting to prevent poverty from affecting the classroom -- subsidized meal plans and after-school programs are examples of this effort. However, this is not enough. We need not ignore poverty. We cannot effectively combat something that we do not address.

By diversifying the arsenal of tools designed to fight poverty established by LBJ fifty years ago in this way, our country might draw nearer to its defeat of poverty. By making those conversations that pertain to inequality, food insecurity, race relations and most importantly, the nature of leading meaningful lives in an increasingly complicated world more commonplace, our arsenal will evolve. In other words, those conversations we must have in order to address our most devastating and complicated social ill -- poverty.