Feb 01

Remembering a War on Poverty Milestone

by Sargent Shriver Peace Institute | 02/01/2021 1:46PM | Quote of the Week | War on Poverty


On the day we mark the 57th anniversary of the day on which President Johnson asked Sargent Shriver to lead the War on Poverty, our Quote of the Week reminds us of the combination of idealism and pragmatism that Shriver brought to the effort.

This week's quote is from the Boston College Commencement, an address from the early days of the War on Poverty. In the speech, we see Shriver's combination of optimism, persuasiveness, and directness.

Some background about Shriver and the War on Poverty: Following his first State of the Union on January 8, 1964, President Johnson called on Sargent Shriver on February 1, 1964 to lead the anti-poverty efforts. Shriver was Director of the Peace Corps at the time. After a fiery conversation, Shriver eventually took up Johnson's challenge. He focused on the notion that people could lift themselves out of poverty if they were given the opportunity to do so. After leading a poverty task force and creating the Office of Economic Opportunity, which managed the efforts, Shriver spearheaded the creation of multiple programs that addressed the root causes of poverty: lack of employment, education, legal resources, health care, community support, and more. The poverty programs, Head Start, Job Corps, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Community Action, Legal Services to the Poor, and Foster Grandparents, were meant to be implemented and customized at the local level, so that individual communities could have the resources that would best help their most vulnerable citizens. And the programs worked: although funding and focus on the War on Poverty lagged as the war in Vietnam intensified, the programs have empowered communities for the past 57years, many of them operating continuously to this day.

Between the ongoing battle with COVID-19 and the deep political divisions that continue to disrupt us, it is indisputable that we are facing a deep crisis in the US at the moment. But the words of this week's quote still ring true. If anything, we have even more knowledge, resources, and means of communication to combat poverty today, and we have a unique opportunity to do so in this moment.

In 1964, Sargent Shriver added the following statement to the assertion that we had the means to win a war against poverty:

"And finally—for the first time in our history—we have the will to do it [i.e., to combat poverty]."

We certainly have the resources to alleviate poverty in this country. But now we must summon the will to do so. We cannot afford to do otherwise.

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