EDITORIAL: Anti-poverty efforts need new ideas and energy

FresnoJanuary 11, 2014 

Lynda Johnson Robb, President Lyndon B. Johnson's daughter, right, joined by members of the Congressional Black Caucus and others, speaks during an event on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 8, 2014, marking the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's declaration of the War on Poverty.


When you reach a milestone such as the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, it calls for some genuine reflection.

It won't be easy, but it's time to move beyond the war — and retire the name while we're at it. Nonprofits and businesses, as well as government, need to bring new energy and new thinking to help Americans lift themselves out of poverty.

What isn't constructive is to wallow in tired arguments over whether we won the war. House Republicans may win points with their conservative base to say that it has been an abject failure and that the federal government should dismantle its safety net programs.

They're flat wrong. The official poverty rate has dropped from 19.5% in 1963 to 15% in 2012. Yes, the actual number of Americans in poverty has grown by 10 million, but our population has increased much more.

Just think how much worse life would be without anti-poverty programs. We have to remember that before Medicare and increases in Social Security, many elderly Americans lived in squalor. Before food stamps, millions more families went hungry.

In California, safety net programs kept nearly 4 million residents, including 1 million children, out of poverty between 2009 and 2011, according to an analysis of census data by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

Still, there is much work to do, especially since the Great Recession set back progress.

The poverty rate in California rose from 12% in 2006 to nearly 16% in 2012. More than 6 million people, including 2.1 million children, are officially poor.

Nationwide in 2012, 46.5 million Americans lived below the poverty line, including 16 million children.

To mark last Wednesday's anniversary of Johnson's declaration, President Barack Obama pushed again for "promise zones" — areas in some of America's poorest communities where job, housing, education and law enforcement aid would be targeted.

However, more big government programs aren't the answer, and we can't afford them anyway.

Long-term trends in the global economy and our society — the decline of blue-collar jobs and the rise of technology, for instance — make reducing poverty a steeper challenge.

Yet the response isn't to give up. It's to become even more committed. That is what our ideals tell us to do. That is what we owe to our fellow Americans.


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