In his first State of the Union address in 1964, Lyndon Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty.” Since then, the War on Poverty has been under attack by the right. Ronald Reagan’s infamous 1988 quote sums up their mantra: “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.” For 50 years now, we have heard those sentiments repeated over and over until they have taken on the force of truth. Of course, we all know how repeating a big lie gives that lie credibility.

 So what is the “truth” about the War on Poverty? There will always be those who try to revise history and claim that Johnson’s other war was a dismal failure, wasting millions and millions of tax dollars. The reality is that the War on Poverty sharply cut poverty in this country – from 19.0 percent when it started in 1964 to 12.1 percent only five years later. During that same time, the child poverty rate shrank by half. By 1973, the poverty rate was at its lowest ever: 11.1 percent. But by the end of the 1970s, those gains were disappearing, and poverty rates started to climb especially during the Reagan era.

 So was Reagan correct? Poverty won the war? Of course not! What a ridiculous statement. Poverty did not win. It was wealth that won.

Beginning during the Carter years, but escalating under Reagan, the very rich succeeded in resurrecting their power. By buying politicians – that is, by contributing vast amounts to get the right people elected – they won back their dominance of the power structure. Programs in aid of the poor were cut back or eliminated where possible. Protections for those at the bottom, such as unions, came under assault in the ailing economy of the 1980s.

 Wealth has always dominated American politics, but the influence of the rich has been beaten back at times. The mass movements for social justice, civil rights and economic human rights of the 1930s and the 1960s had powerful impacts. Unfortunately, the rich bide their time and strike back when the time is opportune. Social Security has been a major target since it was legislated in 1935, and we have seen the same with the War on Poverty programs, including access to food and nutrition through Food Stamps (or SNAP), access to education programs such as Head Start through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and access to the voting booth through the Voting Rights Act of 1965, gutted by the Roberts’ court last year.

 Here in Ohio, where conservative Republicans have dominated state politics for a quarter century, we have seen increasing levels of poverty and hunger and homelessness and desperation. In Franklin County, the poverty rate for 2011 was 18.8 percent - rivaling the 19.0 percent national poverty rate for 1964. The local child poverty rate for 2011 was 26.4 percent, over four points higher than the national child poverty rate in 1964.

 For now, the rich have won. They use poverty as a tool to expand their wealth and influence. They use their influence to paint a picture of the poor as responsible for their poverty. Keeping the level of poverty high ensures willing low wage workers and scares those with jobs from challenging those in power for fear of losing what little they have.

 Yet the poor know damn well why they are poor. Look at what happened when people took to the streets in the 1930s and 1960s. We did it then; we can do it now. They have the money; we have the bodies.



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