Marking the 60th Anniversary of the War on Poverty

“Other people say that the poor will always be with us, that there is no point in trying to eliminate poverty. But President Johnson does not believe that. The Congress of the United States does not believe that. And the American people do not believe that. We know we can win. We have the will to win. We have the technology, the skills, the manpower - and now we have the programs.”
Sargent Shriver | Washington, DC | August 18, 1964

Our Quote of the Week brings us back to a unique moment in US history, when a president, Lyndon Johnson, announced an “unconditional war on poverty.” Sixty years later, there are still lessons we can learn from that “war,” and from Sargent Shriver’s leadership of it.

Sargent Shriver gave this Statement Before the Democratic Platform Committee on August 18, 1964, just as the Economic Opportunity Act, the legislation that officially launched the War on Poverty, passed in the Congress. As Shriver reminded his audience, however, the first milestone in the War on Poverty had occurred months earlier, when President Lyndon Johnson announced the War on Poverty in his first State of the Union Address on January 8. This week, we celebrate that historic milestone.

Shriver’s words reveal several facts about poverty that continue to be relevant for us today. He says:

“Poverty exists in every town and city, on Indian reservations and in rural areas of every state in the nation. It afflicts white and non-white, north, south, east and west, Republicans and Democrats, young and old. It hits hardest at those least able to defend themselves, the ill, the uneducated, the unemployed, the broken family, the dependent child, the minority group member. Their world is not just one of constant need; it is one with little hope or opportunity, without any real chance for escape.”

Shriver adds:

“The ... facts of poverty ... concern all Americans. They concern your future and your family’s future. Crime, delinquency, violence, idleness, dependency and unemployment cost us billions each year. They menace each of us and they are a reproach to our conscience.”

Shriver goes on to describe the intention behind the programs: that they must address the needs of people at different phases and different ages of life; that they must deal with the chronic lack of opportunity in certain communities; and that they must address the causes of poverty at their root. Shriver ends the speech by linking the effort of eliminating poverty to the nation’s most cherished values, liberty and justice, and by painting a portrait of an America transformed by the act of eliminating poverty:

“liberty and ... justice mean we must look at Americans not as the rich and the poor, but as each one a citizen of our country. The days when we separate poor people and label them relief recipients are numbered because relief is an outworn concept unworthy of Americans in this day. Ours is a great country, with great potential, incredible technology, dedicated and capable people. We should not need to ‘relieve’ anybody. We do need to open up more opportunities. With this philosophy and approach, we will soon see the day when economic opportunities completely replace relief and the dole in our country. This, I propose, is the challenge to our generation - to build a world for our children in which relief is unknown and opportunities are unlimited.”

In the decades since the launch of the War on Poverty, many of the programs, including Community Action, Head Start, and Legal Services, have survived, and continue to successfully serve residents of every US state. Unfortunately, the notion that we should support a central effort to eliminate poverty has long been abandoned by our federal government — to our collective detriment. Nevertheless, the “facts” of poverty that Sargent Shriver outlined 60 years ago remain the same, and we continue to support the idea that poverty can be abolished.

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Peace requires the simple but powerful recognition that what we have in common as human beings is more important and crucial than what divides us.
Sargent Shriver
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