In war on poverty, early gains and a long stalemate

LBJ launched a major national battle 40 years ago this week.

Sam Nicholson is broke. Things could be worse - he's got his own bed to sleep in, and food stamps help. But the retired cabbie's teeth need to come out, he's got little hope of seeing a dentist soon, and a cold wind is whistling outside Raleigh's Morgan Street soup kitchen.

That's an actual cold wind, not a metaphorical one. Lately temperatures in Raleigh have been unusually low.

"Matters are only getting worse in this country," says Mr. Nicholson. "People are losing jobs and can't afford medical help or insurance." Forty years ago this week, President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared an unconditional war on poverty in America. Today that war is not over, and there's a question as to whether the US or poverty has the upper hand.

Big-screen TVs are blowing out the doors of retailers, but 34 million Americans still live below the poverty line. The US GDP is roaring ahead, but the nation still has the worst child-poverty rate in the industrialized world. Still, some in the front ranks say they haven't given up hope. This is one fight where there may be a certain kind of victory in the struggle.

"If the question is, 'Are we winning this war?' I'd say yes," says retired lawyer Bob Slaughter, who cooks and serves at Morgan Street. ""Every day that one of these folks doesn't have to go hungry, we're winning."

In his State of the Union address on Jan. 8, 1964, LBJ both proposed a legislative program and challenged the country. The legislative war on poverty was to be a multipoint program aimed at getting Washington, the states, and local authorities to work together. It included a massive expansion of the food-stamp program, job training, youth employment, and special aid for Appalachia, among other things. Hospital insurance for the elderly - today's Medicare - was part of the effort.

The challenge was an appeal for cooperation at all levels of US politics to help solve a truly national problem. "If we fail ... then history will rightly judge us harshly," said Johnson.

Almost forgotten today is the fact that, at the same time he proposed a war on poverty, LBJ also pledged to reduce overall federal spending by $500 million, in an effort to win conservatives' votes.

Furthermore, he made his pitch at a time when poverty was actually declining, from 22.4 percent in 1959 to about 19 percent at the time of his address.

Still, the next few years saw the nation make its greatest gains since the end of the Depression against an intractable human problem. The poverty rate fell steadily for almost a decade, bottoming out at 11.1 percent in 1973.

And that was it. Since then, the poverty rate has seesawed up and down, largely following the state of the economy. It hit highs of 15.2 percent in 1983 and 15.1 percent in 1993. It declined in the go-go 1990s, then began rising again: In 2002, the latest full year for which the Census Bureau has figures, it was 12.1 percent. That's almost 35 million people in poverty, 12.1 million of them children.

Some parts of the Great Society war on poverty, such as Medicare, remain among modern US government's most popular and successful efforts. Others have withered away.

In fact, recent years have seen a major attitudinal shift in how Washington approaches the problem of driving down stubborn poverty numbers. Where LBJ's approach focused on cash assistance along with other benefits such as food stamps, today the main thrust of government programs is to get poor people into private-sector jobs.

Welfare reform, passed in 1996, is the symbol of this change. Under this bill, if aid recipients don't get a job within a certain time frame, they generally lose most cash benefits. Ten years on, welfare rolls have declined remarkably, though they've begun rising again in some states.

"The effects of reform are moderately clear at this point. They are overwhelmingly positive, if not entirely so," said Lawrence Mead, a New York University professor of politics, at a recent Brookings conference.

Yet the system presents tough new problems, such as how to raise the incomes of ex-welfare mothers in entry-level jobs, and how to get ex-welfare fathers more involved with their kids.

And as even Professor Mead noted, not all experts are satisfied with the perceived morality of the new system. At the same conference, Harvard public policy professor Mary Jo Bane - who resigned from the Clinton administration in protest over the '96 bill - said she did not object to pressuring the poor to work. She did object, she said, to how the safety net of other kinds of benefits, such as housing supports, was damaged in the process.

When it comes to helping the poor, said Professor Bane, morality demands that the government "err on the side of generosity."

Back at the Morgan Street soup kitchen, there's a festive air in the cafeteria, as groups huddle together and eat. It's not Paris, but there are magnolias on every table and music from an out-of-tune upright piano. Willard Duncan admits that many poor people are bitter about their plight. But not this Vietnam vet. "There's always more that people can do to help other people," he says. "I just thank God I was born in America."

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