War on Poverty: Success hard to gauge over the decades

In his 1964 State of the Union address, 50 years ago this month, President Lyndon B. Johnson made a speech to officially declare war on poverty, paving the way for several new social programs designed to provide assistance for poor and unemployed Americans.

That war has raged on for five decades years now, and reliance on programs like food stamps and unemployment insurance has increased, leading some to conclude that combating poverty will be a never-ending battle and the “war” was a failure.

“Johnson wanted to end poverty and I do think he had some initial success at lowering the poverty rate with programs like food stamps, Head Start and unemployment insurance,” said Mike Tager, political science professor at Marietta College.

But he noted the 1960s economy was fairly strong in the U.S., which may have encouraged the creation of those “safety net” programs.

“Since 2000 the poverty rate has been going up,” Tager said. “To me that’s caused by a structural issue in the present economy. There’s not a lot of good-paying entry level jobs if you don’t have the technical training or necessary skills.”

He said for a half century social programs like food stamps, Medicaid and unemployment insurance have provided a safety net for those who have lost their jobs and have no other means of support.

“Without those programs I think the poverty rate could be much worse,” Tager said. “But the programs also create some problems with no easy answers.”

Many states are pushing to increase the minimum wage, for example, but the trade-off is that companies may cut back on hiring because they can’t afford to pay the higher rate to their workforce.

“I’m not sure we’ll ever completely solve the poverty problem, but we also don’t want to just throw up our hands and give up,” Tager said.

The nation’s Community Action agencies will also celebrate 50 years of service in August this year, according to David Brightbill, executive director of

Washington-Morgan Community Action.

“The Equal Opportunity Act (in August 1964) created local Community Action agencies across the country, and our programs like Head Start and employment training for good jobs have helped,” he said. “But in the end the only way for people to get out of poverty is with a good job.”

But he said Community Action can only train for existing jobs from which people can make a decent living.

“It’s too complicated an issue to simply say the war on poverty has failed,” Brightbill said. “As an agency we’ve been doing employment and training programs since the beginning of that war. And a number of good-paying jobs have gone away in the local area over the years, so we also help with re-training for new jobs.”

He noted the shutdown of industrial facilities like the Ormet plant in Monroe County compounds the poverty issue as workers from higher-paying positions are thrown into a market where such jobs are few and far between.

“It’s not like there are hundreds of other jobs that pay $18 to $25 an hour to replace those jobs,” Brightbill said. “Most of the training we’re currently providing is in the medical or truck driving fields which can provide a good level of pay.”

He said Community Action and similar agencies have basically been on the front line of the war on poverty from the beginning, and he questioned what the jobs situation would be today if those programs did not exist.

Brian Goddard, 41, and his wife, Robin, 38, of Clarington are among those impacted by the Ormet shutdown.

“I was laid off in October, and my unemployment benefits will be running out,” Brian said. “I was making more than $19 an hour, with medical benefits, and there’s no other jobs in this area where I can earn that much.”

Robin said their situation has become more difficult because she has to undergo surgery at the end of this month, and even though she works as much as 92 hours every two weeks to help make ends meet, the family receives no health care coverage from her job.

The Goddards say the war on poverty has failed because people like themselves need good jobs to stay out of poverty and not rely on government programs to keep their heads above water.

“I think the government needs to focus more on eliminating poverty here in the U.S. instead of trying to help so many other countries,” Brian said. “And we need to keep the jobs in this country. If we would keep industries here instead of in foreign countries a lot more people would have good paying jobs.”

Robin noted the income gap is growing in the U.S.

“It used to be there was a poor, middle and rich class, but now it seems like there’s just the poor and the rich,” she said.

In a recent newsletter, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said the war on poverty is still being waged and urged his colleagues to approve an extension of unemployment for laid off workers.

Brown said unemployment helps those workers focus on finding jobs without worrying about being able to put food on the table or paying bills. But he also called for job creation and educating workers to fill those jobs.

“Nearly 50 years after LBJ’s courageous declaration, we are reminded that more must be done to eradicate poverty in our nation,” he said in an emailed statement this week. “It’s time every American has a chance to earn a decent living and an opportunity to realize the American Dream.”

Ohio Rep. Andy Thompson, R-Marietta, agreed that employment is the answer, but thinks large safety net programs can get in the way.

“The best war on poverty program is a job,” he said. “It’s a disservice to people when they’re drug-free, trained, and ready to go to work but they can’t find a job.”

But he said the war on poverty has also been a war on families, and that programs are helping with the consequences of poverty but not the poverty itself.

“The role of fathers has been replaced by government paychecks for many families,” Thompson said. “Monstrous assistance programs have been built, all with good intentions, but they’re still not getting people out of poverty. If it’s not working, don’t keep doing the same thing. You have to address the root issues.”

He said some good advice to stay out of poverty would include completing school and pursuing higher education, not having children out of wedlock and staying off drugs and out of trouble.

“And the goal of any war on poverty program should be to provide opportunity for jobs,” Thompson added. “Treating the symptoms of poverty doesn’t provide a cure. We need to get people out of programs and into jobs which will be a source of pride, income and accountability.”

Elizabeth Lutzen, 30, of Lower Salem, said in spite of the programs created over the last 50 years, poverty continues.

“It’s still here,” she said. “These programs have helped some people get jobs, but poverty is getting worse.”

Lutzen noted Ohio’s minimum wage may increase by 10 cents an hour, but the cost of living also increases every year.

Mike Cline, 46, of Marietta agreed.

“I think things have gotten worse in the last 50 years,” he said. “The programs started back then may have worked at that time, but today the cost of living is so high that people have a hard time keeping up.”

Cline added that programs like unemployment insurance are OK to a point, but those benefits shouldn’t be extended forever.

“After some time you may have to take that $10 an hour job instead of $15 an hour, but realize that $10 is still more than the minimum wage,” he said.

U.S. Congressman Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, said the war on poverty is always going to ebb and flow.

“We’ll have spurts of success and spurts of failure,” he said. “There were 74,000 jobs created as of December in this country, and that’s a very low number. And for every person who got a job, five others left the workforce.”

Johnson said more opportunities need to be created so that people have a way out of their poverty.

“I think the idea of eliminating poverty by President Johnson was well-intentioned, but I also truly believe he expected to see success,” he said, adding that creating job opportunities is key to that success.

“That’s what’s missing,” Johnson said. “There doesn’t seem to be an exit ramp for people who find themselves in that situation.”

He said the only way to create those opportunities is to build a stronger national economy with less government intrusion.

“Get the federal government off the backs of private business, get rid of over-regulation which only saps energy from the economy, and let the nation’s businesses expand,” Johnson said. “It’s all related to economic growth. If you have a strong economy there will be good-paying jobs and more opportunity.”

Everyone needs a hand up at some time in their lives, he said.

“Americans are a caring people, that’s what makes us great, but we have to combine those well-intentioned (safety net) programs with opportunity for people to get out of poverty,” Johnson added.