A Call to Arms in the War on Poverty

Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty. It was one of the greatest social undertakings of our time, spawning and expanding some of our most successful social programs - Medicare, Medicaid, increased Social Security benefits, a permanent food stamp program, housing programs, and job training.

Using these tools, America won many battles in this ongoing war. Social Security alone decreased elderly poverty by nearly 10 percent. Medicaid and food stamps now lift millions out of poverty.

Fifty years later, however, the face of poverty has changed dramatically, yet our tools to combat it have not.

In 1964, even a minimum wage job was enough to keep a family of two adults and one child above the poverty line, ensuring they would have the basic necessities of life. All in all, in 1964, if you had a job, you could provide for your family. Not so in 2014. Today, nearly 60 percent of families (often minorities) who receive food stamps are working. Many of them work for minimum wage - just $7.29 an hour, or $279 a week before taxes for a full-time worker.

Since the War on Poverty began, we've also seen the number of single earner households triple. Children within such families are about five times as likely to be poor as children in dual earner households. Welfare once closed the gap but today it is largely unavailable, as federal mandates to "end welfare as we know it" in the 1990s have evolved into an end to welfare as we most need it in 2014. That's not because of significant economic gains among those in poverty- it's because the financial backing for safety net programs, and the political support needed to create it, simply isn't there.

The new face of poverty is that of the working poor, with heads of households who are employed full-time for minimum wage. They are single mothers living paycheck to paycheck. They are families destroyed by an illness that wiped out their savings, or by the mortgage crisis that put their home underwater and sunk their credit.

The new face may be hard to recognize but they are easy to see. They check your groceries at the Dominick's (until their job is terminated) and change your oil at the 10 Minute Lube. They greet you at the door of the megastore and tell you to have a nice day at the drive-thru window.

Instead of being safely sequestered in urban areas we never visit, today's poor live down the street. Their kids play with your kids. You shake hands with them in church.

As the president of Heartland Alliance, one of the Midwest's largest anti-poverty organizations, these are the faces I see every day - the faces of the new poor - who line up at our doors in ever increasing numbers as they face homelessness, illness, and joblessness.

We need a new call to arms to face these new challenges and make prosperity an attainable goal again. A War on Poverty 2.0 requires a multi-prong strategy that includes action at the federal, state and local level. We need to raise the minimum wage and once again index it to the rate of inflation. We need to revitalize our now threadbare social safety net. Communities need to increase and improve affordable housing, and make homelessness and home insecurity a priority.

Perhaps most importantly, we need a new mindset that embraces the challenge of lifting people out of poverty rather than punishing them for being there in the first place.

Modern day poverty is more complex, more damaging, and more pervasive than it was 50 years ago. Much like modern warfare, our success in combating it lies in our ability to improvise, adapt, and overcome.

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