01/06/2014 03:00 pm ET Updated Mar 08, 2014

50 Years Since LBJ's War on Poverty: A New Battle Cry

Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope--some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity. This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.

It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it...

So I ask you now in the Congress and in the country to join with me in expressing and fulfilling that faith in working for a nation, a nation that is free from want and a world that is free from hate--a world of peace and justice, and freedom and abundance, for our time and for all time to come.
--President Lyndon Baines Johnson, State of the Union (January 8, 1964)

It's hard to believe that it's been nearly 50 years since President Johnson stood before Congress and gave the speech of a lifetime -- launching his "War on Poverty." At the time, I was a young girl of just 12 years old but, even as a child, I already knew too much about what it feels like to live in poverty. I was poor in 1964, and I was poor for many years after that. I struggled -- taking one step forward and two steps back -- time after time. Yet I was far better off than my parents were, in part because I was born in the era when this country committed to opening doors of opportunity for the poor.

Many people who are familiar with Congress' record of dysfunction in recent years would be floored to learn of the accomplishments of Johnson's era. Over the period of a few years, our nation focused fiercely on people facing hardship. By the end of Johnson's term, his "war" had resulted in the establishment of many of our bedrock safety net programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, Head Start and other core education programs.

In the years since LBJ, his programs have lifted millions upon millions out of desperate situations. Unfortunately, we have lost the focus we once had. Today in Congress, some of my colleagues seem to have launched the opposite of the War on Poverty; they have launched a battle against our anti-poverty programs. Or perhaps more tragically, they seem to be fighting a war against the poor. Many of my colleagues in Congress endeavor to chip away at safety-net funding, eroding budgets little by little, until we are left with programs that are less effective at eradicating need -- and then the critics somehow find the nerve to pass judgment on the value of the programs!

Obviously, we haven't eliminated poverty in this country. In fact, we have done some backsliding since the Great Recession. According to recent poverty figures, nearly 1 in 5 families in the U.S. struggle to meet one or more of their nine basic needs. "Basic needs" include such necessities as utilities, rent or mortgage, seeing a doctor, and having enough food. Too many children live in these households. In my district, and districts across the country, I hear tragic stories of food insecurity and its effects on kids. What's worse, Census data show that financial strain actually increased between 2005 and 2011.

We have a multitude of evidence demonstrating that poverty's roots are deep and entrenched. These findings should underscore the importance of programs such as unemployment insurance, housing assistance, and others. These programs have been proven to work and lift people out of poverty. But somehow, they have developed enemies.

Our anti-poverty programs face threats on the federal, state, and local level, day in and day out. Families' benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) were just reduced in November, and the House of Representatives passed a Farm Bill this year that would cut almost 4 million people off the program. Governors across the country, including Governor Scott Walker, have chosen to refuse free funding to expand Medicaid -- undermining the program, and undermining the Affordable Care Act in the process. Now House Republicans aren't committed to extending unemployment insurance benefits -- in spite of the fact that many of our unemployed are now in the "long-term" category, since they have been seeking a job for 27 weeks or longer. Republicans hide behind claims that they are "rooting out fraud and abuse" and using that excuse to slash and gut supports for people in need.

It's time for us to remember the words of LBJ. I hope we all take a moment, on this 50th anniversary, to recall that once upon a time, our political leaders proudly worked to end poverty -- instead of proudly campaigning on promises to erode anti-poverty programs. We must reawaken our desire to help those in need and open our eyes to the reality of life for the poor. Let's join together and recommit ourselves to finishing President Johnson's mission.