How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

The shifting politics of the war on poverty

Fifty years ago, in his 1964 State of the Union address at the start of his first full term in office, President Lyndon Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty.” Underpinning the war on poverty was the notion that it was a primary responsibility of the federal government to improve the life, health and welfare of all of its citizens and to attempt to eliminate poverty.

When LBJ entered the White House, the only national social program was Social Security. In the recent book “The Great Society at Fifty,” Nicholas Eberstadt of the conservative American Enterprise Institute indicates that LBJ even more than FDR “profoundly recast the common understanding of the ends of governance in our country.”

The war on poverty created a wide range of new programs – Head Start, the Job Corps, community health centers and community action programs. These programs, combined with Medicare, Medicaid and the historic civil rights legislation, comprised President Johnson’s Great Society. There is no question whatsoever that these initiatives dramatically reduced the poverty rate, which fell from approximately 19 percent to a historic low of 11.1 percent by the early 1970s.

I recently saw “All the Way,” a new play written by Robert Schenkkan and starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ. The play portrays how, through wile, guile, arm-twisting and deal-making, LBJ was able to get a recalcitrant Congress to pass the bulk of his legislative agenda.

As Peter Edelman has pointed out in his book “So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America,” “The 1960s were truly a historic decade of progress on civil rights and poverty. President Johnson deserves great credit for what was done under his leadership.” Pablo Eisenberg, a fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, wrote in a recent article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy that the war on poverty was the “first time the federal government had ever started an aggressive program to eliminate poverty.” According to Eisenberg, it was “Sadly the last time an American president turned out to be a strong advocate for the poor.”

Eisenberg is correct. No president since LBJ has been willing to mount an aggressive program to aid the poor in our country, let alone make eliminating poverty a national priority. President Regan said, “Government is not the solution; government is the problem.” President Clinton signaled that the era of big government was over when, in his first inaugural address, he called for a “new approach to government, a government that offers more empowerment and less entitlement.”

President Obama has been generally unwilling to even utter the word “poverty” during his tenure. Some would argue that his avoidance of the “p word” was recognition that any effort to deal with the needs of the poor would be dead on arrival in a House controlled by Republicans.

In a recent lengthy interview in The New Yorker magazine, President Obama made it clear that he recognizes that a “Marshall Plan for the inner city is not going to get through Congress.” Always the realist, in his February 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama proposed a very modest, scaled-down domestic agenda. The president clearly acknowledged that he has limited ability to get serious social programming through Congress during his second term.

The president was clear that there is absolutely no sentiment for the scale of government that was seen during Johnson’s Great Society. He indicated in the interview that “The appetite for tax-and-transfer strategies, even among Democrats, much less among independents or Republicans, is probably somewhat limited, because people are seeing their incomes haven’t gone up, their wages haven’t gone up. It’s natural for them to think any new taxes may be going to somebody else.”

In the intervening years since LBJ, the social service safety net has been tattered, with the result that more Americans are living in poverty today than in the early 1970s. Today, approximately 50 million Americans, or 15 percent of our people, are living in poverty. Poverty is now almost 4 percent higher than it was in the early 1970s. While it is better than the 19 percent of pre-1964, it is still appalling for the richest nation on the face of the Earth.

President Obama’s inability to get the Senate to extend long-term unemployment insurance and to eliminate Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cuts is evidence that Republicans in Congress are convinced that the American people are not committed to reducing poverty, joblessness and hunger.

We desperately need a leader who will remind us there is historic evidence that federal programs can help remedy social ills. We need leaders who understand, as New Jersey legislative guru Alan Rosenthal did, that legislative politics is like sausage-making – very messy.

Lastly, we need a president like LBJ who understands and relishes the schmoozing and nuances of politics. As Lyndon Johnson says in the play “All the Way,” to his good friend Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, after using pork to secure Republican support for his voting rights bill: “It’s not personal, Dick; it’s just politics.”