TOPSHAM — As a child of the ’60s, I detested Lyndon Baines Johnson. I protested the war in Vietnam and marched on Washington. But I’ve come to appreciate that LBJ’s “Great Society,” including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act and the War on Poverty, which included Medicare, Head Start and food stamps, was the most visionary domestic program of my lifetime,

Jan. 8 marks the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, LBJ’s attempt to secure not only equal opportunity but also economic security for all Americans. So what, precisely, did the War on Poverty accomplish?

Fifty years later, we can say that while LBJ’s domestic war did reduce the poverty rate somewhat and has succeeded in providing health care for the elderly and food for the famished, poverty itself has fallen off the national radar.

There remains much to do. Many families earn less than $23,550, the poverty level for a family of four. And the programs LBJ instituted are now under attack. Just recently, as part of an effort to reduce the budget deficit, largely the result of tax cuts for the rich, Congress voted to reduce the food stamp program.

Few people living in poverty are homeless or are welfare frauds. In fact, most are members of working families whose jobs pay very little. According to a recent report from the University of California at Berkeley, 73 percent of enrollments in government assistance programs are from working families.

Who are the working poor? We all know them. They are our cashiers at the supermarket, they clean our office space, they are picking up our trash, they are waiting on our tables.


They work at huge corporations like McDonald’s and Walmart, which make extraordinary profits while paying many of their full-time workers an average of only $17,000 a year, or below the poverty line.

The working poor are people working every bit as hard as the rest of us – even harder, often needing two jobs to pay the bills. With the low wages they earn, many workers are just one setback away from economic disaster – a work injury, illness or loss of a job.

With the little progress that we’ve made, with President Obama declaring that he will focus the rest of his term on inequality in America, the time is now on this 50th anniversary to renew LBJ’s War on Poverty. Where do we start?

First, let’s recognize the importance that the anti-poverty programs initiated by LBJ continue to play. Programs like Head Start not only provide our children with safe, quality care and education, but also provide parents with an opportunity to work. Medicaid and Medicare ensure that our poor and elderly have adequate health care.

Second, let’s stop cutting the social safety net. Just after Christmas, millions of jobless Americans lost their unemployment benefits. Food stamps, which provide an average of $122 per person per month, ensure that all of us in this richest country in the world have enough to eat and don’t go to bed hungry. Here in Maine, according to the Good Shepherd Food Bank, 24 percent of children don’t know where their next meal will come from.

Third, let’s get real and raise the minimum wage. A study by Oregon State University indicates that in 2012 dollars, when LBJ left office in 1968, the minimum wage (which was under $2 an hour) was worth $10.51 an hour. Today, the national minimum wage is $7.25 – or roughly where we stood in 1960, before the War on Poverty. There has not been an increase nationally since 2009.

Some of us may remember the picture almost 50 years ago of Robert F. Kennedy holding a baby whose stomach was swollen because of a lack of food – not in sub-Saharan Africa but here in the U.S., in Mississippi. When RFK asked Charles Evers how this could happen, Evers replied, “Maybe they just don’t know.”

Perhaps on this 50th anniversary of LBJ’s War on Poverty, we should look back to that picture and stop denying what we already know. Consider how we would pay our rent, feed our children, keep our lights on and heat our house on the fast-food wage of $1,400 a month. Then, perhaps, we may understand the importance of LBJ’s government programs and the need to act. Perhaps as a nation we can agree that it is time to renew the War on Poverty.

— Special to the Press Herald

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