“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity,” said Nelson Mandela, “it is an act of justice.”
When the War on Poverty began a half-century ago, it was widely seen as the moral obligation of a wealthy nation. President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in his first State of the Union message, 50 years ago. That speech was delivered on January 8, 1964, to a Congress and a nation still grieving the assassination of a young and vibrant president. “Let us carry forward the plans and programs of John Fitzgerald Kennedy,” said Johnson, “not because of our sorrow or sympathy, but because they are right.”
Johnson knew that some of his colleagues might pay a price for their political courage on this issue. But he rejected the path of centrist convenience in his moral call to fellow Democrats. Said Johnson: “I especially ask all members of my own political faith, in this election year, to put your country ahead of your party.”
Some sacrifices are worth the price. But then, as now, politicians and journalists often dealt with the moral challenge of poverty by rendering it invisible. Michael Harrington talked about that in his 1962 book, "The Other America," writing of the “normal and obvious causes of the invisibility of the poor.”
Those forces “operated a generation ago,” wrote Harrington, and “they will be functioning a generation hence … the very development of American society is creating a new kind of blindness about poverty. The poor are increasingly slipping out of the very experience and consciousness of the nation.”
He was right. A generation later, the ranks of the poor, which swelled after Wall Street triggered the 2008 crisis, have too often remained out of sight and out of mind to a political and media class obsessed with false arguments about deficit reduction and “downsizing government.”
That’s not to say that the War on Poverty has been a failure. Far from it. When Ronald Reagan said that “we waged a war on poverty and poverty won,” he was either being deceitful or woefully ignorant. The Census Bureau reports that government programs kept 41 million Americans out of poverty, including 9 million children, in 2012.
As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities observes, “the nation has made substantial progress against poverty and poverty-related conditions over the last half-century. Yet poverty, inequality, and racial disparities remain high.”
The War on Poverty isn’t an isolated struggle. Even as we’ve made progress against poverty, we’ve fallen back on other fronts. Employment, especially long-term unemployment, is at record highs for the modern era. Higher education is increasingly expensive. We are living in an increasingly inequitable economy. Each of these developments makes it more difficult to fight our war against poverty.
Mainstream eulogies for Nelson Mandela tended to gloss over those aspects of his legacy that challenge our leaders to put “country over party,” but Mandela understood these forces well. “Like slavery and apartheid,” said Mandela, “poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”
Too many Americans who pride themselves on following the Judeo-Christian tradition forget the words of Psalm 82: “Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson – each of them issued a moral challenge to wage ceaseless war against poverty and its causes. Conscience calls on each of us to take up their challenge and continue that war now that they are gone.