Today marks the 50th anniversary of the “War on Poverty” announced by President Johnson in 1964. With this declaration the president put in motion legislation and policies establishing the Office of Economic Opportunity and programs such as Head Start, Medicaid, Medicare, Pell Grants, and expansions to Social Security and nutrition programs including WIC and food stamps. A network of community action agencies was created, blanketing our nation with grass-roots poverty alleviation and economic development programs.
There are five community action agencies reaching all corners of Vermont with programs to alleviate the suffering caused by poverty (food, fuel, housing assistance); teach people the knowledge and skills needed to move out of poverty; support local economic activity through business development and job creation; help young parents and their children to be ready to start school; and reduce the energy demands and costs of heating homes through weatherization.
Each year thousands of Vermonters participate in these programs and services. Many of them come from working households but hold low-wage jobs with few, if any, benefits such as paid sick days and health care coverage. Some have physical or mental disabilities while others, including our retirees, are surviving on fixed incomes.
The War on Poverty was a terrific sound bite even by today’s social media and Internet standards; however, it suggested an eventual endpoint and promise of a utopian future where everyone would enjoy a sufficient quality of life and living standard. To say that such a war has been won would be disingenuous at best; however, to suggest that it has been lost would be equally inaccurate, if not more so.
According to an April 2013 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in 2010 federal safety net programs kept 25 million Americans out of poverty. At that time, 46.2 million people lived in households defined as poor according to federal guidelines, a national poverty rate of 15.1 percent. In the absence of safety net programs, those additional 25 million people living in poverty would have increased our national poverty rate to 23.3 percent — nearly one in four Americans. This is unacceptable in a nation of plenty.
We are also experiencing a growing gap in the distribution of resources as evidenced by a declining middle class and a greater consolidation of wealth among a smaller percentage of extremely wealthy individuals. These folks have been labeled by some as “job creators” — yet where are these jobs and what do they pay? Of those who use community action services, 40 percent are working at least part time but not earning enough to pay their bills.
Over the next few weeks, the national debate most likely will focus on whether the War on Poverty has been won. Citing failure, some policymakers and political pundits will argue for deeper cuts to safety net programs that have already been slashed to the bone, pushing more Americans deeper into poverty and despair. Who will suffer most from this reckless behavior? Our senior citizens, our veterans, people with disabilities and our children, whom we should be preparing for a future of productivity and opportunity.
I suggest that we move the discourse in a more productive direction. Let’s focus on the solutions and strategies we can pursue together as a community to alleviate the suffering of our friends and neighbors. Let’s continue to build partnerships and collaboration, what we do best in Vermont, to support economic activity, educational opportunity and engaged citizen leaders. We need policymakers to support home weatherization assistance, child care subsidies, asset development/matched savings initiatives, the Vermont Women’s Business Center and other entrepreneurship programs that help Vermonters create businesses and jobs for themselves and for others, and a strong earned income tax credit.
We need the private philanthropic community to close the gap where government assistance falls short in keeping food shelves stocked, providing shelter for the homeless, keeping families warm in the winter and in funding innovative programs to effectively move people out of poverty permanently. We need volunteers to help stretch limited resources and engage younger generations in the important work of community building and helping others.
While the War on Poverty may not yet be won, it has made a difference for millions of Americans and tens of thousands of Vermonters by reducing suffering and improving their quality of life. With each family, each individual that we help lift up out of poverty, we are investing in our community and in a future of prosperity that will benefit each and every one of us. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the Vermont way.
Hal Cohen, of Middlesex, is executive director of the Central Vermont Community Action Council.
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