LBJ’s Legacy A Plea for Unity

Raised in a small Texas farmhouse, Lyndon Baines Johnson knew well the bitter sting of rural poverty. At age 15, he decided to forego higher education and performed odd jobs, including operating an elevator, working on a road construction gang, and later, working as a janitor.

Even after he assumed the presidency of the United States upon the assassination of President Kennedy, Johnson didn’t forget the experiences of his youth. On January 8, 1964, a mere six weeks after taking office, Johnson used his first State of the Union address to declare an “all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States.”

As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of this “declaration of war,” the inevitable question being raised is what has been accomplished in this decades-old battle.

In a statement regarding the anniversary on Wednesday, President Obama hailed the progress that has been made.

He pointed out that, without Social Security, nearly half of seniors would be living in poverty.  Today, fewer than one in seven does.  Before Medicare, only half of seniors had some form of health insurance.  Today, almost all do.

Because of expanded pro-work and pro-family programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit, a recent study found that the poverty rate has fallen by nearly 40 percent since the 1960s, and kept millions from falling into poverty during the Great Recession.

“But as every American knows, our work is far from over.  In the richest nation on Earth, far too many children are still born into poverty, far too few have a fair shot to escape it,” Obama added.

In an ideal scenario, the battle against poverty shouldn’t be fought by government bureaucrats, but by the kindhearted residents of each community. In reality, however, this doesn’t work: While there are a number of wonderful organizations that are of invaluable assistance to those who struggle to feed their children, they face severe limitations of resources and funding. In addition, many families who would never agree to accept desperately needed assistance from their neighbors agree, albeit reluctantly, to take a government handout.

Even with existing governmental intervention, in 2012, 46.5 million people residing in the United States — an astonishing 15 percent — lived in poverty. While the 2013 statistics have yet to be released, there is little reason to expect any significant change in these numbers.

More than one in five children lives in a household with food insecurity, which means they do not always know where they will find their next meal. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 16.7 million children under age 18 in the United States live in this condition — unable to consistently access nutritious and adequate amounts of food necessary for a healthy life.

Behind these numbers are real people, men and women, seniors and young children. They include our neighbors, our acquaintances, and our relatives.

Much more needs to be done on their behalf.

While the political legacy of LBJ remains for history to judge, his dedication and commitment to the poor has never been doubted. In that very same address 50 years ago, the president made some extremely valid points about how this battle should be fought, and he prefaced them with a plea for political unity.

“If we fail, if we fritter and fumble away our opportunity in needless, senseless quarrels between Democrats and Republicans, or between the House and the Senate, or between the South and North, or between the Congress and the administration, then history will rightfully judge us harshly. But if we succeed, if we can achieve these goals by forging in this country a greater sense of union, then, and only then, can we take full satisfaction in the State of the Union,” he said.

That statement is just as relevant today — perhaps even more — than it was back then.

After just barely clearing a key Senate hurdle on Tuesday, legislation to renew long-term jobless benefits veered toward gridlock Wednesday as Democrats objected to Republican demands to offset the cost so deficits don’t rise.

Caught in the middle are about 1.3 million long-term unemployed individual who lost benefits averaging $256 a week on December 28.

Extending unemployment benefits would make a huge difference in the lives of all these families, and it is high time for both political parties to come together and reach an agreement on this issue. But many of those living well below the poverty line are actually the working poor, men and women who work long hours but don’t earn enough to support their families.

It is vital that federal and state, governments devote more attention to helping these millions of Americans. More resources must be allocated to fund programs that will help train the unemployed and underemployed. Guidelines for entitlement programs should be revised so to ensure that all those who really need are eligible.

Other ideas that have been floated and should be considered include granting tax breaks to companies that cut down on outsourcing and agree to pay their American workers livable wages, and allowing Americans to allocate a portion of their taxes to be distributed directly to the poor, much like the Presidential Election Campaign Fund.

The rhetoric is out there. All that is missing is the willpower and determination on the part of the country’s elected leaders.