An Even Greater Society is Within Reach

By Melissa Young, Associate Director, NTJN


Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson declared his “War on Poverty,” launching an ambitious federal effort to address the problem of persistent poverty in the United States. Lyndon Johnson’s vision was to create a “Great Society” in which enacting social reforms leading to the elimination of poverty and racial injustice would transform our nation. In the years following, policymakers created Medicare and Medicaid, boosted Social Security benefits, began to fund K-12 education, launched Head Start, and funded job training programs for adults and youth and urban renewal projects.  Policymakers converted food stamps from a pilot project into a permanent program and expanded housing assistance for low-income families among other economic and social reforms.

As President Barack Obama addresses the nation on January 28, 2014 during the State of the Union address, we urge him to declare a commitment to and articulate a vision for making our country an Even Greater Society. Through bold new policies and a steadfast commitment to policies, programs, and systems that have reduced poverty over the last fifty years, we can end poverty and achieve economic opportunity for all.

What do we know?

Poverty and racial discrimination would likely be much greater today without the War on Poverty. When President Lyndon Johnson declared the War on Poverty  in 1964, 19% of Americans were poor. Since then the decline in poverty has been particularly dramatic among the elderly largely because of Medicare and cost-of-living increases for Social Security. According to experts at Columbia University, if the policies and programs enacted under the War on Poverty did not exist, poverty in the US today would be 31% – almost a third of the United States’ population. These same researchers also found that:

  • Government programs today cut poverty nearly in half while in 1967 they cut poverty by only a quarter.
  • Government programs play a substantial and growing role in alleviating child poverty, and particularly deep child poverty.
  • The impact of government anti-poverty programs is particularly pronounced during economic downturns.

Today’s safety net — which includes policies, programs and systems born out of Johnson’s War on Poverty and the years following kept 41 million people, including 9 million children out of poverty in 2012. In addition to reducing poverty, alleviating hardship, and giving millions of Americans access to health care, the safety net today also generates other important impacts. Research shows that Head Start contributes to children’s long-term educational achievement and earnings growth later in life and programs such as SNAP and the Earned Income Tax Credit have long-term positive educational and health benefits for children.

We still have work to do to reduce poverty and achieve greater economic opportunities for all. In 2012, 15% of all Americans lived in poverty – equal to nearly 50 million Americans – including 13 million children, and 16 million people living below half of the poverty line.  Moreover, the difference between the very rich and the middle class has grown astronomically in the last fifty years.  The top 1% of Americans has more than doubled their share of the national income since 1964. According to Pew Research, income inequality has now returned to levels not seen since 1928. There are many factors that contribute to individuals and families living in poverty – including the vast number of American workers that earn at or below-poverty wages, structural changes in the economy that have distributed wealth unevenly, the decline of labor unions, the virtual disappearance of cash assistance for families with children, and persistent gender and racial inequalities.

We know that a family’s economic security is most directly influenced by the stability of employment. Indeed, families facing long-term unemployment are three times as likely to fall into poverty. Today, the percentage of the labor force unemployed for 27 weeks or more is still twice as high as in previous recessions. In November 2013, the U6 – an alternative unemployment rate  which measures the unemployed, the underemployed, and those too discouraged to look for work –  stood at 13.2 percent. Even worse, for many Americans – particularly youth, black men, and single women with children – chronic unemployment and poverty are high, prolonged, and inexcusable.

  • Black Men: In 2012, unemployment among black men averaged 13.8% – much higher than the average unemployment rate for the total population and nearly twice the average unemployment rate among whites. More than 1 in 5 working age black men are living in poverty in the United States. Black men have average annual earnings of only $26,287.

We can do better.

Ending poverty is achievable. We need to craft bold new solutions to address poverty, expand economic opportunity, and continue the fight against racial disparities while at the same time preserving  the programs and systems built during the War on Poverty that have made  impressive progress in ending poverty. Failure to do so will produce grave consequences for our nation in lost production, increases in costly interventions, decreased tax revenue, and slower economic growth.

As President Obama addresses the nation on January 28, we urge him to articulate a vision for achieving an Even Greater Society –and hold Congress, States, and communities accountable for realizing economic opportunity for all Americans through these and other policy reforms:

  • Make Work Pay. Ensure workers can make ends meet by increasing the minimum wage and indexing it for inflation.
  • Put Families and Workers First. Ensure fair pay and working conditions including paid sick days and paid family medical leave.  Advance laws and policies that include employment protections for people who have historically been excluded.
  • Maintain and Strengthen the Social Safety Net. Protect Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and reverse the harmful funding cuts to other critical safety net programs proposed in Congress.
  • Give Every American the Opportunity to Work and Build Skills. Invest in subsidized and transitional jobs programs proven to get Americans back to work quickly. Invest in innovative workforce development, skills training, and education programs and policies that specifically target the needs of low-income and chronically unemployed Americans.
  • Invest in the Next Generation of Workers Now. Establish a national initiative dedicated to investing in older low-income youth and those that are disconnected from work and school through paid work opportunities such as transitional jobs programs combined with education and skill building.
  • Honor Our Commitment to Workers. Extend unemployment insurance for workers and protect them from falling into poverty and experiencing even greater financial hardship.

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About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.

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