Fifty years after Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty, the effects of this legislation remain hotly contested, defining the widening divide between the Left and Right. Democrats, in hailing LBJ's programs for reducing inequality, have regarded public policy as essential for expanding access to opportunity. Republicans, alternatively, have seen the war on poverty as the epitome of government throwing money at the problem.
These divisions highlight why, despite President Obama's call for measures to restore the American dream, his administration is unlikely to undertake a major initiative like LBJ's. Obama faces significant opposition from the Republican-controlled House at a time when his approval ratings are at a historic low and public trust in government is eroding. That the poverty rate is at a height not seen since the early 1960s makes the current situation seem all the more bleak.
And yet, there are significant prospects for change. These stem, ironically, from the politicized legacy of the war on poverty. The Right's half-century criticism of big government has elevated the legitimacy of private charitable solutions to social problems. A telltale sign is the massive growth of the nonprofit sector over this period, 25 percent since 2001 alone. The $316 billion Americans gave to charity in 2012 is, adjusted for inflation, about 2½ times the amount contributed in 1972.
The fact that nonprofits rely on donations from individuals and foundations means that unlike the government programs instituted during the 1960s, the antipoverty work charitable organizations do nowadays generally breeds consensus across the political spectrum.
Reputable groups such as Venture Philanthropy Partners, Roberts Enterprise Development Fund, and Root Cause vet these charities. These groups identify and publicize particular organizations that are making a significant social impact and that use their funds wisely. There are, indeed, many nonprofits from coast to coast with track records of offering second chances to struggling Americans who otherwise would have dim prospects for moving their lives forward.
Of course, there are no magic-bullets for mitigating poverty. Still, these charities offer a variety of programs proven to work. They offer kids an enriched early childhood education, mentor at-risk youth, make college more accessible, teach marketable job skills, and move the chronically homeless into permanent housing.
Amidst rising economic inequality and political gridlock in Washington, an even more exciting trend is that Baby Boomers are expected to bequeath more wealth to their heirs than any prior generations of Americans ever has. The Boston College Center on Wealth & Philanthropy estimates this amount to be as high as $41 trillion by 2055. Indeed, Americans are experiencing an unprecedented opportunity to channel their generosity in ways that can affirm and renew our country's longstanding promise of offering all people the chance to achieve a better life.
The fact that private giving enables people in need to achieve successes that would be unimaginable without the work of so many worthy and respected charities across the U.S. is a significant legacy left by the war on poverty.
Ira Silver is a professor of sociology at Framingham State University. He is the author of Giving Hope: How You Can Restore the American Dream and creator of the Opportunity For All blog.