The 50Th Anniversary of the War on Povertyby Representative John Conyers Jr.
Posted on 2014-01-08
of michigan in the house of representatives Wednesday, January 8, 2014 Mr. CONYERS. Mr. Speaker, a half-century ago today, President Johnson stood before Congress and declared ``unconditional war on poverty.'' Since that declaration we have seen many victories, but also many defeats. Battles may have been won, but the war is far from over.
President Johnson's first State of the Union committed his administration to the pursuit of his fallen predecessor's agenda. Not out of sorrow for President Kennedy, but out of conviction for the principles he represented.
President Johnson defined the mission of the War on Poverty as helping Americans achieve the American dream. He spoke in terms of the average citizen and his ``hopes for a fair chance to make good; his hopes for fair play from the law; his hopes for a full-time job on full-time pay; his hopes for a decent home for his family in a decent community; his hopes for a good school for his children with good teachers; and his hopes for security when faced with sickness or unemployment or old age.
He identified poverty as not the cause but the symptom of America's problems. He believed the cause lay in a lack of education and training, a lack of proper clothing and housing, a lack of safe communities and the sense of security needed to pursue a better life.
He challenged the nation to pursue bold solutions. He called for expanded investment to rescue distressed communities; to engage aimless youth in productive purposes; and to ensure basic levels of food, income, and medical security.
We have done much in the intervening years to achieve his vision. Today, we have the Affordable Care Act helping Americans to receive vital medical services that were previously out of reach. We have numerous programs helping communities offer their children more opportunities to succeed. We have rooted out the most abject forms of poverty that once prevailed throughout much of our rural communities. The poverty faced by our nation's seniors prior to Johnson's declaration has seen tremendous improvement because of his call to action. And we have expanded workforce training programs and educational opportunities for everyone, sending millions of Americans to college who are the first in their families to attend.
Unfortunately these admirable gains reflect less urgency and dedication than the War on Poverty should merit. The gains in the first decade after President Johnson announced this endeavor were remarkable, with the official poverty level hitting its all-time low in 1973. But since then new economic challenges have arisen that work against those at the bottom, limiting the ability of the impoverished to raise their position.
Today, we have an inflation-adjusted minimum wage that is less than 70% of what it was at the end of President Johnson's administration. We have vast inequities in our schools that make the quality of children's education first and foremost a function of address and not their own effort or merit. These inequalities are magnified in an era of skyrocketing executive pay, corporate profitability, and worker productivity, where workers must subsist on stagnant wages that cannot even keep up with historically modest inflation. Just a couple of weeks ago, we made the problem worse by cutting off unemployment assistance to 1.3 million long-term job seeking Americans in a job market that simply cannot offer them meaningful employment.
I urge my colleagues to cease their assault on the objectives President Johnson declared so long ago. Quit fighting the healthcare law and help us improve, refine, and implement it for the good of all Americans. Quit denigrating people who worked for decades, but through no fault of their own are now facing extended unemployment. They aren't resting on a hammock; they are clinging to anything that floats in an economic storm that we helped Wall Street create. Quit bargaining away the social safety net that prevents a family confronted with an unexpected layoff or family illness from losing their home and their future.
But those actions are merely the very least of what we should be doing. If we want to make sure that every person actually has a chance to pursue happiness--which as President Johnson pointed out is the reason that we so jealously guard our security and liberty--then we need to finally win this war. It is time for us to recognize that in the wealthiest nation in the world and in the history of the world, we simply cannot tolerate the sort of persistent poverty that prevents generations of citizens from providing for themselves and their families.
Winning this prosperity will require us to take action just as our predecessors did when President Johnson first called upon them. We can begin by taking up my bill, H.R. 1000, which would aggressively pursue a program of job training, and infrastructure and community investment until we reach full-employment. We should also pass a bill to raise the minimum wage and index it to inflation for this generation of workers-- the most productive of any generation in history--so they can realize the same fair break their parents and grandparents had. And we must reauthorize extended unemployment insurance to help salvage the dignity and security of men and women who lost their jobs because of the Wall Street bankers we bailed out in 2008.
These are the first steps to ensuring that every American is able to enjoy the fruits of our forebears and our own toil. They are not enough to solve the breadth of problems that we face, but their enactment would lead to a meaningful improvement in the lives of those who are beginning to lose faith in us and themselves.
I urge my colleagues to take action this session of Congress that reflects the standards President Johnson laid out a half-century ago and to pursue an agenda that elevates the poor rather than entrenches the rich. We did it before, we can do it again.