Poverty “menaces each of us”

“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.”
Sargent Shriver |Washington, DC| August 18, 1964

Our Quote of the Week reminds us that many of the societal fears, concerns, and costs that we deal with are rooted in the fact that we allow poverty to persist. Whether we ourselves have ever had to deal with economic insecurity or not, poverty has a destructive impact on all of us.

On August 18, 1964, two days before President Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act into law, Sargent Shriver spoke these words before the Democratic Platform Committee. As the presumptive Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), he and his team had worked for months to design a series of programs that could address the causes and effects of poverty for people at all stages of life. As part of this effort Shriver and his team set out to fully define poverty. They determined that:

  • Poverty afflicts people all over America.
  • People living in poverty are not responsible for the conditions in which they find themselves.
  • Poverty affects some populations -- people of color, women, children, people with disabilities -- more acutely than others.
  • Poverty is extremely difficult to escape, and is therefore often generational.
  • Poverty is defined by a lack of financial means, but it’s defined by much more than that. It is also a lack of opportunity, a lack of self-determination, a lack of equity, and a lack of justice.

These facts allowed Shriver and his team to define poverty in a more expansive way than had been done in the past. They understood, for example, that to alleviate poverty one must provide a variety of services: for education, health care, employment, personal and professional development, legal services, and community support. And they then attempted to design programs that would deliver such services on a large scale.

During the speech, Shriver said: “The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, just passed by Congress, is [...] a practical and economic effort, carefully focused to get at the root causes of poverty in the United States. It is not a program of handouts. It seeks to eliminate poverty by providing opportunities for work and education and training.”

Central to the design of the programs was the concept of “community action,” i.e., the notion that self-determination could be nurtured in community members if they had the resources and opportunities to solve local challenges on their own terms. Over the following four years, the OEO, under Sargent Shriver, would bring these programs to life. And, although the OEO would be diminished over the following years and then disbanded in 1981, most of its programs, including Head Start, Community Action, Job Corps, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA, now known Americorps Vista), Legal Services, Upward Bound, and Foster Grandparents, continue to exist today, supporting and empowering Americans who are living in poverty.

The approach of the War on Poverty, and the overall strategy behind President Johnson’s Great Society, indicate that we can alleviate poverty if we address its causes as well as its effects. But we must once again find the will to tackle it as we did in 1964, with ambition and with the intent to bring opportunity, equity, and justice to each and every member of our society.

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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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