This week’s State of the Union speech provided an occasion for Americans to reflect upon how much our nation has accomplished and how much remains to be achieved. We’ve been to the moon and landed a vehicle on Mars — and we still dream of going further. That is the promise of America. But as we dream of horizons not yet met, we must remember some of the unfinished business here at home.
Forty years ago, during his first State of the Union Address, President Lyndon Johnson declared, “This administration today, here and now declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.” In declaring the war that became his legacy, Johnson crafted some of our best and most effective programs to combat this terrible epidemic: Head Start, the expansion of the food stamp program and Social Security, federally funded job training, Medicare, Medicaid and Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
The anniversary of President Johnson’s address begs an assessment of what has become of the war on poverty. Progress has been uneven. While the official poverty rate fell from 19.5% in 1963 to 11.1% in 1973, since then, the rate has fluctuated in tandem with the economic picture. In 2002 it climbed to 12.1%.
When this percentage is translated into hard numbers, the situation seems even more dire. In 2002 1.7 million more people were impoverished than the year before, with the total number of poor Americans growing from 32.9 million to 34.6 million. The number of people in severe poverty increased from 13.4 million to 14.1 million. The rate of children in poverty, which in 2002 stood at 16.7%, exceeded the national poverty rate. These numbers are daunting. Without a commitment to continue the fight against poverty, the numbers could climb higher.
The programs initiated by President Johnson in the War on Poverty have had a profound impact on low-income families. Twenty million preschool children and their families have benefited from Head Start since its inception in 1965. Medicare covers tens of millions of adults age 65 and older and millions under 65 with disabilities. Medicaid has become the cornerstone of our nation’s health care safety net.
The Jewish community cannot turn a blind eye to those in need and cannot fail to see the problem within our own community. According to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, released this past fall, 5% of Jewish households report incomes that place them below the poverty line, 9% of Jewish elderly and 22% of Jewish immigrants who have arrived in the United States since 1980 live in impoverished households. Poverty is indeed our problem. We must recognize our moral imperative to continue to fight. Our domestic agenda cannot be an afterthought.
The war against poverty is not about an aggregate win or loss. It is about whether or not we have the will to fight it. This 40-year anniversary begs us to recommit to this critical fight. This week’s State of the Union Address and the upcoming release of the president’s budget require us to maintain our vigilance.
Hannah Rosenthal is the executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.