Then and Now: War on Poverty

28 January 2015

Events, food stamps, SNAP, social justice

Notice: This blog is released on the day of the All In: Alameda County New War on Poverty press announcement and release of All In to End Hunger by 2020

By: Evelyn Hartman, Food Policy and Evaluation Intern

As I begin my search to understand the social and political climate of the United States when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared “war on human poverty” I come across a timeline entitled, “Headlines from 1964.” I scroll down the list noticing some more than others, until I read the following detailing the events of James Powell:

Black teenager James Powell is shot and killed by a white off-duty police officer in Harlem, NY. Two days later, peaceful demonstrations erupt into violence. For six days, more than 8,000 people take to the streets, smashing windows, setting fires, and looting local businesses. They cause over $1 million worth of damage. [6]

Before I have time to finish processing the information, I am overwhelmed with a very familiar feeling I experienced not too long ago hearing and reading about the events in Ferguson and New York City. Fifty years later this country continues to grieve for individuals and families subject to violent injustices. While we allow history to repeat itself, people are fighting the same wars.

The declaration of War on Poverty in 1964 resulted in several initiatives, such as the Social Security Amendments of 1965, Food Stamp Act of 1964, Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to combat the official poverty rate of 19%. [1] According to a study by Columbia University researchers, the poverty rate fell from 24% in 1967 to 16% in 2012 when accounting for historical inflation and using the 2012 official poverty measure through time. [2] As this study highlights the continued severity of poverty in the United States, on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, President Obama announces in a written statement, “as every American knows, our work is far from over.” [7]

When President Johnson declared war on human poverty, he had the intentions to “not only relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.”[3] Historically, federal programs approach poverty without addressing the fundamental, structural inequities of our economic system. The Food Stamp Act of 1964, for example, which evolved into the current day Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides a bandage for individuals and families experiencing hardship, yet neglects to address critical questions such as; why did more than half of the 22 million-person increase in official poverty between 1972 and 2012 occur among Hispanics? [8] Or, why in 1966 did African Americans constitute nearly a third of all poor Americans, and continue to experience poverty at more than double the rate of Caucasians?[10] By disregarding racial injustices that greatly influence the inequities of our economic system, families, community members, neighbors, and friends who are the faces behind these statistics continue to fight the consequences.

On January 8th, 2014, Alameda County Supervisor Wilma Chan also acknowledged the 50th anniversary by launching the New War on Poverty in Alameda County. The New War on Poverty, with an emphasis on food security, economic empowerment and development, and early childhood education, focuses on similar issues and programs as President Johnson’s declaration.[4] However, the New War on Poverty addresses the issue of poverty amongst a significantly smaller population, by focusing efforts on Alameda County. The effort engages county agencies, city leaders, community-based organizations, business partners and the broader community, who are working collaboratively to eradicate poverty.

Before adventuring out beyond the “bubble” of academia this past spring, organizations or state and federal legislation acknowledging the significance and the role of community was foreign to me. Devaluing the voice of community members and their point of view in economic development projects appeared in many of the lectures and debates throughout my four years in the “bubble.” Thus, after a few months of interning at CFJC, hearing staff members and organizations collaborating on the New War on Poverty use similar language as in the “bubble” of academia that reinforces the value of community, and CFJC’s community-based participatory research approach, gives me hope for the future. Through this bottom up approach of CFJC and the New War on Poverty the inequities of our economic system can be addressed as they come to the forefront, rather than addressing this complex issue of poverty solely from the top down. I look forward to theAll In Alameda County press conference todayto learn the efforts of the New War on Poverty All In to End Hunger campaign.


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