Sitting on a stack of boards under a tarpaper roof in Inez, Ky., President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in April 1964, just months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
That now famous announcement led to programs such as food stamps and Head Start designed to help the poor. It also sparked an ongoing national debate about what causes poverty and how to fight it.
More than four decades later, one tiling is clear: poverty persists. Although it steadily declined throughout the 1960s, the poverty rate has fluctuated only slightly since 1971 when it settled at 12.5 percent--its exact spot in 2007. That means about 37.3 million people were living in poverty in 2007, up from 36.5 million in 2006. And more people may be in trouble soon.
"In this economic downturn, a lot more people are going to need more help," says Ron Haskins, an expert on poverty at the Brookings Institution.
Poverty looks different now than it did in 1964, when many rural communities didn't have electricity, running water or indoor plumbing. On the other hand, the poor now face a new set of challenges, including mounting barriers to economic mobility. Despite a growing national economy from 2001 to 2007, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that the median income of working age households remains lower and poverty remains higher than before 2001, the year of the last recession. In other words, even in good economic times, poverty remains.
Child poverty is also a growing problem. It fell in the '90s, but is up 15 percent since 2000. About 18 percent of children today, or about 13 million kids, live in households with incomes below the poverty line.
While disagreements continue about the causes of poverty, especially between liberal and conservative hardliners, efforts are gaining steam to shore up the gains made against poverty since the 1960s, particularly when it comes to children.
These efforts are increasingly visible in the states, which have shown a renewed willingness to put poverty front and center.
"As we watched our kids fall further and further behind, we knew we needed to do something significant," says Senator Doug Racine, chair of the Vermont Child Poverty Council. In 2007, Racine spearheaded legislation to create a bipartisan group of legislators and cabinet secretaries committed to halving child poverty in Vermont in 10 years. Commissions similar to Vermont's are at the forefront of state poverty efforts across the country.
Once he took office, Johnson wasted little time taking on poverty. His administration created an Office of Economic Opportunity and set in motion a series of initiatives designed to strike at, as he put it, "the causes, not just the consequences of poverty." Many of these programs, such as Medicaid, Job Corps and work study, still exist today.
Haskins thinks Johnson's programs, although imperfect, were "nonetheless great because they bestowed upon the federal government a serious responsibility for the unfortunate among us."
In the 1980s, Johnson's sense of obligation was tempered by Ronald Reagan, who shifted the poverty debate from the plight of the poor to personal responsibility. "Those whom government intended to help discovered a cycle of dependency that could not be broken," Reagan said in accepting the nomination at the 1984 Republican National Convention. "Government became a drug, providing temporary relief, but addiction as well."
Reagan thought many social programs invited fraud and abuse and encouraged the poor to collect welfare and avoid work. While he believed the federal government should provide a safety net, Reagan thought a growing economy was the best medicine for...