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Annie Moore: Obama and the War on Poverty

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Fifty years ago, Michael Harrington described a population struggling to make ends meet. Beset by chronic poverty among generations, the people couldn't afford decent housing, proper nutrition, or adequate medical care.

The year was 1960 and the people were American citizens.

Harrington proposed in his essay, "The Other America," that an end to economic inequality in America was within reach in the U.S., and could be eliminated through a comprehensive, coordinated assault on poverty.

A copy of the essay came across the desk of newly elected President John F. Kennedy. The essay resonated with what Kennedy had witnessed while campaigning in the coalfields of Appalachia: families living in shacks without running water and children in rags -- human beings simply struggling to survive.

The people Kennedy met and Harrington described lived in McDowell County, West Virginia, just 300 miles from Washington, D.C. -- but a world apart.

They were the inspiration for the "War on Poverty" Kennedy christened in a speech celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Social Security program days before his death. 

Kennedy called on representatives from several different cabinets to come together each Saturday to brainstorm ideas and programs that might lead to an end to the extreme poverty affecting nearly a quarter of Americans. 

"The "Saturday groups" were just beginning when Kennedy was shot in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

Although Kennedy's life had come to an end, his dream for economic equality among Americans would not.

The torch was passed to Lyndon B. Johnson to carry on Kennedy's anti-poverty crusade. Johnson entrusted the late President's brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, to recruit the best and brightest minds on the subject. Together, they set out to provide the underserved a path to a life otherwise out of reach. 

From the War on Poverty came Job Corps, Head Start, Legal Aid, and Medicaid. The programs were wildly successful when they began, lifting millions out of out of severe economic hardship and bringing poverty levels to their lowest levels ever recorded. 

What they became over time; however, was a way of life for the individuals who depend on them. Unable to keep pace with rising enrollment and burgeoning budgets, many of the programs were not ready for NAFTA, deindustrialization, and the advent of the information age.

The minimum wage, food stamps, supplemental security insurance, and Earned Income Tax Credit that came after Johnson's Great Society helped substantially -- but they were not enough. More than 50 years later, the United States stands at a crossroad once again. 

Tempered by a decade of war and a recession, 30 million Americans live below the poverty line, 14 million are looking for work, and as many as 5 million are estimated to have simply given up.

Fifty years later, President Obama is uniquely positioned to deliver a new War on Poverty. He must offer more than a coordinated assault on unemployment, though.

He must make the case to the American people that we can reinvent entitlement spending in a way that returns the spending to Kennedy and Shriver's intent: "to be a hand-up, not a hand-out."

He must address overseas companies which illegally subsidize their exports, dumping underpriced products on our markets, and out-competing us in everything from steel production to furniture manufacturing.

Addressing these issues won't be easy; governing rarely is. But it will be necessary to ensuring the American worker's preeminence in the world. The United States has stood in its finest hours as a guardian of human rights and a champion of the underserved.  It's what separates us from the rest of the world. To turn back on this tradition now would be a betrayal of who we are, and the thousands of service members who sacrificed their life on our behalf.

Moore, of Beckley, is a journalist for WVVA-TV in Bluefield.  

 


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