Fifty years ago this week, President Lyndon B. Johnson used his State of the Union address to declare “unconditional war on poverty” in America. “Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom,” President Johnson said in 1964:
“The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children….Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.”
These now-famous words gave rise to the passage of fundamental civil rights legislation and programs like Head Start and Medicare, helping to expand economic opportunity, improve access to education, build a social safety net and keep millions of families out of poverty. At the time and in the decades that followed, the Ford Foundation played a key role in establishing and advancing many of the ideas and initiatives that led to essential (though incomplete) progress in reducing poverty. Today, fighting inequality remains at the root of all of our work.
The Center for American Progress has just issued a thoughtful report, “The War on Poverty: Then and Now,” that looks at lessons learned from the past five decades and the opportunities we have to continue to advance opportunity and shared prosperity today. “The War on Poverty has not failed us, but our economy has,” the authors write, calling for a renewed national commitment to reduce poverty.
“[W]e need an investment agenda that addresses the needs of 21st-century America and the demands of a global economy. It is time to raise the minimum wage, close the gender pay gap, and create better-quality jobs. It is time to invest in work and income supports that cut poverty and expand economic opportunity, and learn from local initiatives that work at the cutting edge of poverty reduction.”
This week has seen a wealth of smart coverage and analysis published to coincide with the anniversary. Here’s just some of what we’ve been reading:
- At CNN, historian Stephanie Coontz explains why the war on poverty isn’t over.
- From The New York Times, why the war on poverty is “a mixed bag.”
- The Chronicle of Philanthropy looks at the legacy of Ford-funded community-action agencies, “probably the most astonishing product of the Johnson anti-poverty programs.”
- And from Paul Krugman: “If progress against poverty has been disappointing over the past half century, the reason is not the decline of the family but the rise of extreme inequality.”
The Ford Foundation
The Ford Foundation is an independent organization working to address inequality and build a future grounded in justice. For more than 85 years, it has supported visionaries on the frontlines of social change worldwide, guided by its mission to strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement. Today, with an endowment of $16 billion, the foundation has headquarters in New York and 10 regional offices across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.
Tel (+1) 212-573-5128
Fax (+1) 212-351-3643