A little more than 50 years ago, President Lyndon Baines Johnson implored, “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.” Later in that same State of the Union address, Johnson said: “Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support.”
More than five decades later, the nation still is organizing and drumming up support to fight poverty. Locally, as detailed recently in an article by Columbian reporter Scott Hewitt, the focus has been on breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty — the kind that is pervasive and self-replicating, essentially being handed from generation to generation. And it is problematic; in Clark County, 11.6 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
The notion of the “poverty line” is one that has become muted. The phrase is uttered so often and with such a dearth of context that it loses its impact. The government defines poverty as having insufficient income to provide the food, shelter, and clothing necessary to preserve health. In Clark County, the poverty line for a one-person household in 2014 is $11,490; for a family of four, the line is set at $23,550. Living below the poverty line doesn’t mean that a family can’t afford to upgrade its cable package this month; it means it is living at barely subsistence levels.
In Clark County, efforts are focused on teaching people to break the cycle. The Community Foundation for Southwest Washington received $700,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to dole out over the next four years to programs that focus on educating people to work their way out of poverty. “Every family wants the best for their children, but every family’s experience is molded by what they’ve known,” Jan Wichert of the Vancouver Housing Authority told The Columbian. “If your parents didn’t finish high school, you may not grow up with any idea about graduating high school and going to college. So, let’s help folks know.”
It is a noble and sensible approach, but solutions don’t come easy. A recent article at Forbes.com by Lloyd Billingsley appeared under the headline, “50 Years Later, LBJ’s ‘War on Poverty’ Has Proven A Total Failure.” Billingsley quotes Sasha Abramsky, author of “The American Way of Poverty,” who writes that those tasked with leading the War on Poverty set about “reducing a massive moral conundrum — poverty amidst plenty — into a set of scientific and statistical data. Once that occurred, the energy was sucked out of the process.”
In other words, fighting poverty must take place at the grass-roots level rather than at national-level think tanks. That is the strategy that can be found in local programs such as those benefitting from the largesse of the Gates Foundation.
Last week, President Obama used this year’s State of the Union address to say, “Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by — let alone get ahead.”
Obama has helped make “wealth inequality” the catchphrase of the moment in political discussions, and yet that serves only to distract from real problems. Some people have more skills and more marketable talents than others. That will never change; “inequality” always will exist. But by using resources wisely and stressing the importance of education and skill development, society can teach those suffering from poverty how to avoid handing it down to their children.