The Facts of Poverty

“The facts of poverty are clear. 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.”
Sargent Shriver |Washington, DC | August 18, 1964

Our Quote of the Week reminds us of some fundamental facts about poverty. As the holiday season continues, let us remember that what many of us take for granted as a time of abundance, many others struggle through as a time of acute scarcity.

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 appointed 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.

To prepare for the creation of the War on Poverty programs, Shriver set out to fully define poverty. He determined that:

  • Poverty afflicts people all over America.
  • People living in poverty are not responsible for the state that they’re in.
  • Poverty affects some populations -- people of color, women, children, people with disabilities -- more acutely than others.
  • 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, and a lack of justice. Consequently, to alleviate poverty one must provide a variety of services: for education, health care, employment, personal and professional development, legal services, and community support.
  • Poverty is extremely difficult to escape, and is therefore often generational.

Having defined poverty in a more expansive way than had been done in the past, Sargent Shriver then determined that by understanding the true causes of poverty and implementing the programs of the OEO on a large scale, poverty really could be eliminated. During the speech, he 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.”

The programs were designed to deal with poverty at all stages of life. And, although the OEO would be diminished over the following years and then disbanded in 1981, most of these 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 War on Poverty, and the overall strategy behind President Johnson’s Great Society, show us that we can alleviate poverty if we address its causes as well as its effects. As we prepare to enter 2022 with all of the economic and social challenges we face, we would do well to rally behind the belief that Sargent Shriver expressed throughout his tenure as the head of the War on Poverty: that with the right policies, the right execution, and with perseverance, we really can eliminate poverty.

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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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