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A Strong Safety Net Is Keeping People Out Of Poverty

Fifty years ago this week, in his first State of the Union speech, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a “War On Poverty.” Johnson’s declaration came just weeks after succeeding to the White House upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

“This budget, and this year’s legislative program, are designed to help each and every American citizen fulfill his basic hopes — his hopes for a fair chance to make good; his hopes for fair play from the law; his hopes for a full-time job on full-time pay; his hopes for a decent home for his family in a decent community; his hopes for a good school for his children with good teachers; and his hopes for security when faced with sickness or unemployment or old age.

Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope — some because of their poverty, and some because of theft 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. One thousand dollars invested in salvaging an unemployable youth today can return $40,000 or more in his lifetime.”

Making poverty a national concern set in motion a series of bills and acts, creating programs such as Head Start, food stamps, work study, Medicare and Medicaid, which still exist today. The programs initiated under Johnson brought about real results, reducing rates of poverty and improved living standards for America’s poor.

As Shawn Fremstad writes in his blog on the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “there is a good historical case to be made that the “war on poverty era” continued at least through 1974 and arguably 1977 (and it was definitely over by Reagan’s election). As a practical matter, Nixon did much more to build on Johnson’s anti-poverty initiatives than to tear them down.

While Johnson may have initiated the War on Poverty, it was Nixon who institutionalized much of it.

For example, while the Food Stamp Program (now SNAP) was expanded from a pilot program to a permanent one in 1964, only about 1.5 percent of the U.S. population were receiving benefits the month after Johnson left office, and the decision to operate a food stamp program as well as the eligibility standards was still left to local areas. It was legislation adopted during the Nixon Administration (particularly in 1971 and 1973) that made food stamps a truly national program with uniform eligibility standards and availability nationwide. By October 1974, about 7 percent of Americans were receiving benefits. And it was the Food Stamp Act of 1977, which owes its existence in large part to the bipartisan efforts of Senator Bob Dole and George McGovern that established the modern program we have today.

Similarly, Supplemental Security Income was established in 1972 to replace state programs for the elderly and disabled (funded under the Social Security Act) with a federal program with uniform eligibility criteria throughout the nation. And the EITC was first established in the Tax Reduction Act of 1975, signed by President Ford. Both SSI and the EITC had their beginnings in Congressional debates in the early 1970s over President Nixon’s otherwise ill-fated Family Assistance Plan proposal.

And, in 1969, Nixon called for adding an automatic COLA to Social Security as well as an across-the-board benefit increase); he signed both into law in 1972.”

President Nixon also signed legislation enacting the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC). The program provides nutritious foods, nutrition education, and referrals to free health and social services to pregnant, postpartum and lactating women and their infants and children up to age five.

(To see what other Presidents have done to increase the well-being of America’s children watch our video Presidents Helping Children.)

We have been hearing, and I am sure will continue to hear, legislators declare that the war on poverty has been a failure. But I beg to differ. That assumption is incorrect. The truth is that the percentage of poor Americans went down substantially in the sixties, from 22.2 percent to 12.6 percent, a 43 percent reduction in six years. These programs were also adequately funded during that time, a critical component to ensuring success.

We also know that without many of the programs established in the sixties, the poverty rate would be much higher today. What has failed is our legislators’ determination to continue the war on poverty in a meaningful way. Cuts to funding, changes in the structure of some of the programs, and shifting political ideologies have all impacted progress. But legislation aimed at strengthening instead of shredding the safety net here in the State can put us back on the right course.

There is legislation being proposed at the State level that will have a direct impact on poverty in our state. In the next few weeks and months we will update you on the bills and action that you can take to continue the war on poverty here at home.

As President Johnson said in his State of the Union address, “Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support. But this attack, to be effective, must also be organized at the State and the local level and must be supported and directed by State and local efforts.”

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About MaryLou Beaver

New Hampshire Campaign Director Every Child Matters Education Fund
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