In 1964 Lyndon B. Johnson made history during his first State of the Union speech with this sentence: "This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America."

From that declaration a host of government initiatives sprang, including Head Start, an expanded food-stamp program, and sweeping reforms in health care for the needy. It worked. The poverty rates fell and living standards for many in poor communities rose. And all because the president had had the political will to say that having one in five Americans living in the kind of abject conditions their fellow citizens associated with Third World countries and the novels of Dickens was as dangerous as any battlefield enemy.

The problem with declaring war, of course, is that sooner or later people believe the conflict will end and peace will break out. But 40 years after Johnson led the charge, the battle against poverty still rages. The biggest difference today is that there is no call to arms by those in power.

Recently released figures from the Census Bureau show that for the third year in a row the number of Americans living below the poverty line has increased. It's no longer Johnson's one in five, but it's still more than one in eight. There were 1.3 million more people defined as poor in 2003 than there were in 2002; more than 700,000 of those were kids. And that's with the bar set extraordinarily low, at just over $18,000 a year for a family of four. When you adjust the level to reflect reality, you come closer to 35 percent of all Americans who are having a hard time providing the basics for their families, what the Community Service Society of New York calls "The Unheard Third."

Who cares? Well, some people who have been pushing the rock of need uphill for a long time. There are the food-pantry folks, handing out more meals, and the shelter folks, looking for more beds. Deborah Weinstein's been in the business for a quarter century and now runs Coalition on Human Needs, an umbrella group that advocates for its members in Washington. In other words, she lobbies for the disenfranchised. "It's been my privilege," she says. "I wish I had better success with it."

Her frustration, and that of others who do this work, is that it's pretty clear what brings results. Some of the solutions are similar to the ones LBJ talked about in his speech. Raising the minimum wage, which hasn't been adjusted in seven years. Expanding unemployment insurance. Really grappling with health care. Poor kids are much more likely to become sick than their richer counterparts, but much less likely to have health insurance. Talk about a double whammy.

But politicians are inclined to support those programs their most vocal constituents support, and part of the problem with a war on poverty today is that many Americans have decided that being poor is a character defect, not an economic condition. For those who think poor parents are hanging around the house watching the soaps and waiting for a government check, it's worth noting, says Weinstein, that 70 percent of our poorest kids live in households where someone works.

One teacher in a New York City school in which roughly half the kids qualify for free lunch says she can measure which of her first and second graders are poor by how many jobs their parents have. Two or three, and she knows they're probably really needy. She also says the poorest kids are terribly afraid of playing too hard and so messing up their clothes. "Maybe because they don't have very many," she said. "And probably it's pride."

Just before these dispiriting new poverty statistics were released, the Bush administration took a bow for a decrease in caseloads in the government program for needy families. A press release said that Americans were "improving their lives by leaving public assistance and entering the workforce." But the poverty figures that followed a few days later, and the marked decrease in the employment rate among single mothers, revealed the bait-and-switch: a growing population of the poor that had lost both their jobs and their benefits and gone, not from welfare to work, but to what now? Which means no breakfast for you, little boy.

An attitude check is no substitute for food on the table, but the first might lead to the second. Weinstein says she sits in focus groups in which middle-class citizens say, "Poor people get help and rich people get help and people in the middle don't get anything." Adds Weinstein, "They're right about the rich people." Statistics show that the wealthy have prospered most in our current economy, and the unheard third at the bottom least. (But who are you gonna believe, government rhetoric about fairness for all, or your lying eyes?) Given how much influence the wealthy exert over the political process, there's really only one reason to champion programs for the poor. But it's a reason well worth remembering at a time when elected officials are inclined to make much of the state of their souls: it's the moral thing to do. LBJ said of the war on poverty, "The richest nation on earth can afford to win it." That's still true. Now all we need are some generals.

Join the Discussion