“Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope – some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity. 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.”
— President Lyndon B. Johnson, January 8, 1964
Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared “war” on poverty during his state of the union address. Fifty years later, the programs he helped create have lifted millions of Americans out of poverty, but our current poverty statistics make it clear that we still have a ways to go in realizing his dream of opportunity for all Americans.
President Johnson’s war on poverty led to the creation of social safety net programs intended to alleviate some of the consequences of poverty like Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, Pell Grants, expansions to Social Security, and nutritional assistance. One estimate from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concludes that between 2009-2011, 209,000 Nebraskans including 49,000 children, were kept out of poverty by social safety net programs.
There is much to be proud of in President Johnson’s legacy, but there is also work to be done. In 2012, 15% of Americans and 13% of Nebraskans lived below the official poverty line. Troubling disparities in poverty rates by race and age persist with people of color and children more likely to be poor. Although the official poverty line is widely considered to be a problematic measure of economic security, it tells us we still have work to do before the war on poverty is won.
The economy has also changed significantly since the war on poverty began, with higher education becoming more important than ever before and wages for lower income workers failing to keep up with the cost of inflation.
As the Nebraska State Legislature convenes on the 50th anniversary of the war on poverty, we hope that there will be a strong focus on ensuring that all Nebraska families have the best possible opportunity to succeed. Policies that help working families including an increase in the minimum wage, increased access to school breakfast, paid family and medical leave, increased access to affordable child care, and removing barriers to emergency savings are expected to considered this session. Progress in these areas can help us build on the success of the federal policies that President Johnson put in place and continue working toward his dream of an America without poverty.