There has been much debate in recent months about whether we have won or lost this war. On one hand, the national poverty rate has dropped by only 3% since 1964 (from 19% to 15%), and the gap between the rich and the poor is at its greatest since the 1920's. Here in New York City, 1 in 3 children live in poverty -- the equivalent of $23,283 annually (before taxes) for a family of four.
On the other hand, the last five decades have seen a great expansion in the types of infrastructure development that Johnson called for in his speech: programs like Title I funding for under-resourced schools, Food Stamps, public health insurance, and Head Start all grew out of the war on poverty, and all continue to provide critical support for children and families in poverty.
Perhaps this is the year to ask a more central question: What are we fighting for?
Johnson argued that we were fighting for a nation in which everyone can fulfill their basic hopes. He rightly pointed out that winning the fight against poverty is about more than government programs and infrastructure - as important as those are. It is about creating an equal opportunity for everyone to “develop and use their capacities… so that they can share... in the promise of [our] nation.”
There is no group for which this is more critical than our young people.
One of the best weapons we have in the continuing war on poverty is the energy and potential of our youth. In the 1960’s millions of young people mobilized to end wars, improve their communities, and carryout their vision of a more perfect union. The same is possible today.
The key to igniting this potential is to invest in focus on the most powerful and inspired part of Johnson's speech - building the capacities of today's young people. This means investing in their capacity to become skilled workers, educated citizens, and economically secure adults. More fundamentally, it also means investing in their capacity to dream and to believe that they can make their dreams a reality.
Johnson speech summed up our calling perfectly:
“So I ask you now... to join with me in expressing and fulfilling that faith in working for a nation, a nation that is free from want and a world that is free from hate—a world of peace and justice, and freedom and abundance, for our time and for all time to come.”
We need to inspire today’s youth to believe and help them to become leaders in the continued war on poverty.