by Félix Pérez
In today’s highly charged, winner-take-all brand of politics, the War on Poverty — which marked its 50th anniversary last week — takes on a different meaning depending on the political orientation of the person speaking. Some people hail its central role in reducing poverty and hunger, expanding health care and increasing educational opportunity, while others view it as a failed experiment best replaced by the free enterprise system and state block grants for governors and legislators to use as they see fit.
Either way, often lost among the partisan rhetoric, talking points and briefing papers are the improvements for children and students from poor families struggling to access educational opportunity and economic security.
Championed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the historic and wide-ranging campaign, also known as the The Great Society initiative, has cut the poverty rate by nearly 40 percent since the 1960s and kept millions from falling into poverty during the Great Recession. By making funding contingent on implementing reforms in education and elsewhere, the federal government was able to get states to make changes many had resisted until then.
Addressing Congress on March 16, 1964, President Johnson said;
We are fully aware that this program will not eliminate all the poverty in America in a few months or a few years. Poverty is deeply rooted and its causes are many. But this program will show the way to new opportunities for millions of our fellow citizens. It will provide a lever with which we can begin to open the door to our prosperity for those who have been kept outside.
President Johnson was right. Poverty remains an issue and struggling communities too often have high dropout rates and too few highly qualified teachers and education support professionals. Nevertheless, the War on Poverty has had some noteworthy and far-reaching education milestones:
- The Civil Rights Act authorized federal authorities to sue for the desegregation of schools and to withhold federal funds from education institutions that practiced segregation. The law was central to the desegregation of the south.
- The Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA), designed to improve achievement among poor and disadvantaged students, was the first ever general aid-to-education program adopted by Congress. Among the programs included in ESEA is Title I, which serves 17 million students.
- Head Start was launched to help children from low-income families arrive at school ready to learn. Currently, Head Start and Early Head Start serve nearly a million children.
- Upward Bound, a program that stressed reading, writing, and extracurricular activities, was designed to encourage low-income high school students to attend college.
- The Higher Education Act provided the first congressionally approved scholarships to undergraduate students, targeting access to postsecondary opportunities for lower and middle-income families and including the Work Study Program.
- The establishment of bilingual education for non-English speaking children. In 2009-10, the most recent data available, there were 4.45 million limited-English-proficient (LEP) students being served by bilingual education programs.
- The expansion of education services for children with disabilities.
President Barack Obama, in a statement issued last week, lauded the War on Poverty, but admitted “our work is far from over.”
Said the president:
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, and Americans of all races and backgrounds experience wages and incomes that aren’t rising, making it harder to share in the opportunities a growing economy provides. That does not mean, as some suggest, abandoning the War on Poverty. In fact, if we hadn’t declared “unconditional war on poverty in America,” millions more Americans would be living in poverty today. Instead, it means we must redouble our efforts to make sure our economy works for every working American.
Next week: Market-based reforms and block grants, or targeted assistance: Which is better at addressing income inequality and educational opportunity?