The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, January 19, 2014

Isaiah 10:1-4; Mark 14:7 CEB

January 8th marked the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of War on Poverty.  Johnson used the occasion of his first State of the Union Address to announce his bold initiative to eradicate poverty in America.  “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America,” he thundered in his Texas drawl.  Johnson described “the plight of Americans who ‘live on the outskirts of hope’ because of poverty or race.” “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,” he declared.Such programs as Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, and VISTA would soon result from Johnson’s initiatives.  One of the iconic photographs of the era is a black and white picture of President Johnson and Lady Bird visiting an unemployed family of eight at their rustic cabin in Inez, Kentucky, in April 1964.  Looking back, we have to applaud Johnson’s vision; and the fact that his heart was in the right place.

But, fifty years later, there are those who contend that Johnson’s War on Poverty failed; that we lost the war.  According to the 2012 US census, 15% of Americans still live in poverty, compared to the 19% of Americans who were deemed to be in poverty in 1964.  Today, an estimated 50 million Americans live below the poverty line.  Poverty in America remains high, higher than in most comparable nations of the world.  Susan Page, writing for USA Today, quotes Senator Marco Rubio of Florida who said, “Isn’t it time to declare big government’s war on poverty a failure?”Well, was Johnson’s war on poverty a  failure, or are we fighting a different type of war today that needs different approaches and solutions?

The reality is poverty today is different than it was 50 years ago.  Or to put it another way, the causes and nature of poverty have changed over the past five decades.  On the positive side, more adults have completed high school.  According to some government sources, many Americans living below the poverty level today live in a house or apartment that is in good repair, equipped with air conditioning, cable TV, a color television, and DVD player.  And more than half of the American poor have computers and a flat-screen TV.

But on the negative side, the number of American households led by a single parent has more than tripled in the past 50 years, to thirty-five percent.  And children raised in single-parent homes are four times more likely to be living in poverty than children living in two-parent homes of the same education level.  On top of that, the very rich in America are becoming richer, while the middle class is shrinking.  The amount of income that goes to the top 1% in America has more than doubled, from 10% in 1964 to 22% in 2012.  Those at the bottom of the middle class are in danger of slipping into poverty.

So, what is the answer to the poverty problem in America?  The reality is, there is no one answer, and addressing the poverty issue is a complex undertaking.  But as people of faith, we have a long-standing Judeo-Christian mandate to try to meet the needs of the poor.  The eighth-century Hebrew prophets like Amos and Isaiah warned against ignoring the plight of the poor and needy and those who cannot help themselves.  Isaiah pronounced doom on those who draft laws to deprive the needy of their rights, and take advantage of the poor.  Of special concern were widows and orphans, who often cannot help themselves.  It seems that these ancient prophets wrestled with the same type of issues that we wrestle with today.  Sadly, earlier presidential administrations enacted huge tax cuts for the rich.  Recently, emergency unemployment compensation ended for many jobless Americans.  There have been recent cuts in food stamps.  The minimum wage has not been raised in five years.  And many state governors (including our own Governor Haslam) have refused the Medicaid component of the new health care initiative, denying coverage to the poor and helpless, when it would have cost the states next to nothing to accept it.  What would Amos and Isaiah have to say?

Now, I am called upon practically every week to help the poor and needy of our community.  The reality is, there are a few who abuse the system.  And then there are flaws in the system that can encourage abuse.  One of the big problems in the system has been the so-called “anti-marriage incentives” that were built into the system.  In other words, it often has been more profitable for a single mother, who can draw government aid, than it is for a mother with a husband who has a low-paying a job.  Hence, one factor in the trend toward children born out of wedlock (which today stands at 41%) and single parent households.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Robert Rector wrote, “In reality, we’re losing the war on poverty because we have forgotten the original goal, as LBJ stated it half a century ago: ‘to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities.’” Rector continues later in the article, “So how might we restore LBJ’s original mission in the war on poverty?  First, as the economy improves, the government should require able-bodied, non-elderly adult recipients in the federal welfare programs to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving benefits.”5   I tend to agree with that to some extent.  I well realize that there are people in our society who are in poverty and cannot work and cannot help themselves.  Just as I encounter those who abuse or take advantage of the system, I also see a lot of people who cannot help themselves and who must rely upon help to survive.  I think we have a religious mandate to take care of such.  But I also realize that there are many able-bodied Americans who expect to live on government handouts.  I think President Franklin Roosevelt had the right idea in helping the poor of our country, but in the case of those who are able-bodied, helping them support themselves by establishing jobs through the CCC and WPA and like programs.  Somewhere along the line the vision that Johnson had of poverty-free America got skewed.  We do need to see to the needs of the poor, needy, downtrodden, homeless, and helpless; but perhaps how we go about it needs to be reevaluated.

That verse that I read attributed to Jesus that is found in Matthew, Mark, and John, to the effect that “you will always have the poor with you,” has long troubled me.  What was Jesus trying to say in that verse?  That it is inevitable that there will always be poor people in the world, people living below the poverty level?  Was Jesus saying that since having poor in the world is a given, then we shouldn’t trouble ourselves about them?  I don’t think so.  I find it quite interesting that the verse is not found in Luke’s gospel.  Luke—as the gospel that is most sympathetic to the poor, outcasts, and downtrodden—did not include the verse, “you will always have the poor with you.”  Perhaps Luke—as the advocate for the poor, downtrodden, and helpless—was more optimistic that the gospel as preached by Jesus and the movement that ensued after his death would work to alleviate the needs of the poor and the world would not always have the poor with them.  I don’t know what Luke was thinking.

As noted above, rarely a week goes by that I am not faced with the request for financial help.  And often I am faced with determining who has legitimate need and who might be able to help themselves.  I tend to err on the side of compassion.  Aid to Distressed Families in Appalachian Counties (ADFAC) is doing an outstanding job of working with the poor of our community, and I lean upon them quite often to gain information when dispensing financial aid.  ADFAC, of which I am now a Board member (by the way), has the manpower and resources to work with people, counseling them on how to better manage so as to help themselves.

When we think about the poor of our country from a broad scale, we realize it is a complex issue and much change needs to come about.  But from a faith perspective, we cannot ignore the plight of the poor, downtrodden, homeless, and helpless.  We must do what we can to offer hope, with the information and resources we have, in spite of Jesus’ pronouncement that we will have the poor with us always.  At least, that is my perspective on it. Amen.

Sources Cited: 1USA Today, January 7, 2014.  2Ibid. 3Susan Page, USA Today, January 7, 2014.   4Wall Street Journal, January 14, 2014.  5Robert Rector, Wall Street Journal, January 8, 2014.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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