We Can Eliminate 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, D.C. | August 18, 1964

Our Quote of the Week marks the 57th anniversary of the passing of the Economic Opportunity Act (August 20, 1964), the legislation that officially launched the War on Poverty. It captures a watershed moment in our history, when a collective belief that we could eliminate poverty gave us enough momentum to implement President Johnson’s vision to tackle poverty and inequality head on.

On August 18, 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 for people at all stages of life. Central to this design 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.

We are in very different times than we were 57 years ago, but there are lessons we can learn when we look back to the moment in history in which Sargent Shriver spoke these words. 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 continue to struggle with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, we would do well to once again rally behind the belief that Sargent Shriver expressed in that fateful August of 1964: 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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