50Th Anniversary of War on Povertyby Representative Denny Heck
Posted on 2014-01-09
HECK of Washington. Mr. Speaker, 50 years ago this week, in this
very Chamber, President Lyndon Johnson declared an ``unconditional war
on poverty.'' The mission the President outlined was grand, but his
goal for each and every American was modest:
Help them fulfill their basic hopes--their hopes for a fair
chance to make good; their hopes for fair play under the law;
their hopes for a full-time job on full-time pay; their hopes
for a decent home for their family in a descent community;
their hopes for a good school for their children with good
teachers; and their hopes for security when faced with
sickness or unemployment or old age.
Fifty years later, the results speak for themselves: The number of children living in poverty has dropped by 10 percent; the number of seniors living in poverty has plummeted by 32 percent; tens of millions of Americans have health insurance because of Medicare and Medicaid; the percentage of adults completing high school has skyrocketed from 56 percent to 88 percent; the share of women in the workforce has increased from 42 percent to 64 percent; and each and every single day, millions of school children go to school with full stomachs because of nutrition assistance.
We have much as a Nation we can be proud of; and the best way, the very best way we can celebrate and honor that progress is to rededicate ourselves to the challenges remaining. Because the truth of the matter is there are still too many Americans out of work, and there are still too many Americans working in jobs that don't pay enough to raise a family, and there are still too many Americans working harder for less.
I don't pretend that there are easy solutions to these problems. There is no cure-all, there is no silver bullet Congress can fire, but we simply cannot stand down; and we cannot, as President Johnson warned, ``fritter and fumble away our opportunity in needless, senseless quarrels between Democrats and Republicans.'' Sound familiar? So, Mr. Speaker, on this 50th anniversary of the start of the war on poverty, it comes down to one simple question we should have the courage to ask ourselves: Are we doing everything we reasonably can to strengthen the middle class and help those working to get into it? Let me repeat that. Are we doing everything we reasonably can to strengthen the middle class and help those working to get into it? And I think we should also have the courage to answer that question honestly, and I think we all know the answer. It is ``no.'' But we also all know that we can. That is the question of our time.
The question of the day is whether or not we are going to help in this way by extending unemployment compensation benefits. The business case for this is exceedingly strong. The fact of the matter is that there are three people looking for work for every job available. The fact of the matter is that long-term unemployment is nearly twice as high as it was at each of the times that we ended emergency unemployment compensation over the last couple of decades. The business case for this is very strong, for those 1.3 million people already affected and the 2.6 million or so or more that will be affected in this calendar year. The business case is very strong.
There are those, of course, who will suggest that there are those who abuse unemployment compensation. I am not going to quibble about that, but I am going to reject the principle that Americans don't want to work, don't need to work, and that we are not hardwired to work, and I can prove it to you. I can absolutely prove it to you. Stop right now and ask yourself, what is the first thing you ask someone when you meet them? ``What do you do?'' We define ourselves by our work. It gives us pride. It helps us support our family. It makes our communities and neighborhoods stronger. Americans want to work. And when they cannot, we ought to be there to help them. We can, and we should.