Lyndon B. Johnson sought to battle poverty

PARKERSBURG – Opinions may differ on how successful the War on Poverty declared 50 years ago this week by President Lyndon B. Johnson has been and what should be done going forward, but there’s at least one thing on which most pundits, politicians and people on the front lines can agree.

It isn’t over.

“Today, 50 years since LBJ’s declaration of a War on Poverty, we have made progress, but still have work to do,” said U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., in a statement this week. “We face many unique, complex and intensely personal challenges in our efforts to reduce the great need that exists in so many parts of our state and country – almost unimaginable need in some areas.”

It was a desire to defeat poverty, the senator said, that first brought him to West Virginia as a V.I.S.T.A. volunteer in 1964 – the same year Johnson urged Congress to declare “all-out war on human poverty.” Rockefeller would go on to become state governor and has represented West Virginia in the Senate since 1985.

“My experiences in Emmons, (W.Va.), changed my life forever, as I became so personally involved in the unfairness, struggles and disappointments faced by the people there,” Rockefeller said. “These memories give my service meaning, and they inspire me to fight for relief, dignity and most importantly, self-determination for our most vulnerable citizens.”

The White House this week issued a progress report on the War on Poverty by the President’s Council of Economic Advisers in recognition of the anniversary.

Using the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which takes into account tax credits and benefits while anchoring past data to today’s poverty standards, the report says the percentage of the population in poverty has decreased from 25.8 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012. But that still leaves 49.7 million Americans living below the poverty line, including 13.4 million children.

Republican Party leaders have used the anniversary to offer a series of policy proposals to shift anti-poverty programs to the states, promote job training and offer tax incentives for low-income workers. Addressing poverty is shaping up to be a key topic in this mid-term election year.

Johnson’s War on Poverty brought him to Ohio University in May 1964, when he outlined his vision for the “Great Society” he envisioned America could be. Initiatives born from Johnson’s War on Poverty that still affect people today include Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start and Community Action.

Community Action agencies continue to serve residents of the Mid-Ohio Valley in the form of Community Resources Inc., covering 11 counties in West Virginia, and Washington-Morgan Community Action in Ohio.

“Certainly we’ve come a long way since 1964,” said David Brightbill, executive director of Washington-Morgan Community Action. “Has the problem been solved? No. There’s certainly a whole litany of issues.”

But Brightbill, who’s been involved with Community Action in one form or another since 1967, said there’s one key to combating poverty.

“The only sure way to get people out of poverty is to have jobs that pay a living wage,” he said. “People can’t raise families with minimum wage jobs.”

Community Action helps with that by providing job training at local institutions. In Wood and surrounding counties, Community Resources does this in a variety of ways, including the Family Development Counseling Program, said Jessica Moyer, development manager for the agency.

“We meet with our clients once a month to prepare plans to get them to self-sufficiency,” she said, noting obstacles like education, transportation, child care and more can be addressed.

Both Moyer and Brightbill expressed concerns about pushes to cut benefit programs, like the recent reduction in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.

Instead of cutting programs, Moyer wants to see them changed and re-focused to meet the needs of today’s poor.

“A lot of assistance programs don’t cover things for children like diapers, baby food and formula,” she said.

At the Latrobe Street Mission, director of operations Jason Batten also sees both progress and room for improvement in the War on Poverty. One group he often sees “fall through the cracks” of service agencies is registered sex offenders. For example, those individuals understandably can’t stay at shelters like the mission’s because women and children are also housed there, he said.

Batten said he understands the frustration many people might feel at the thought of providing aid to individuals convicted of such crimes.

“However, it’s my belief that everyone deserves second chances; just by nature of being human, everyone deserves a helping hand,” he said.

Another key to addressing poverty – particularly in cases of homelessness – is programming aimed at addiction. While not all homeless people are addicts and not all addicts are homeless, there is a “circular relationship,” he said.

Despite the challenges, Batten said he remains optimistic that America can continue to make progress against poverty.

“I’m hopeful about the future,” he said.