“This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America…It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won.” – President Lyndon B. Johnson, State of the Union, January 8, 1964."
Today marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of the War on Poverty. The effort, which consisted of anti-poverty programs aimed at improving education and healthcare access, feeding the hungry, and ensuring a livelihood for our seniors, was an important step in both our country’s awareness of and commitment to fighting the hurdles, hardships and lack of opportunity faced by people living below the poverty line.
Over the past 50 years, federal programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Headstart and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have played a critical role in the national effort to fight poverty. Today, these and other anti-poverty initiatives have contributed to a reduction in overall poverty rates and are currently keeping close to 40 million Americans from falling below the poverty line. In addition to a decrease in the overall poverty rate during this time, the poverty rate among seniors has fallen from roughly 30 percent in the mid-1960s to 9.1 percent in 2012.
The Obama administration has worked hard to help create jobs, improve our schools, increase access to healthcare, and ensure fair treatment for everyone working and seeking work. And the effort to continue fighting poverty remains a top priority for President Obama. According to the Commerce Department’s Census Bureau, 49.7 million Americans, or 16 percent of the population, were in poverty in 2012. Furthermore, a Census report released yesterday found that 3.6 percent of our population experienced chronic poverty between 2009 and 2011. During that same period of time, nearly one in three Americans lived in poverty for at least two months.
Since the mid-1960s, the Census Bureau has led federal efforts to measure poverty in the U.S. In 2010, Census developed a supplemental poverty measure to take into account the effect of government programs on poverty not included in the official poverty measure. Census’ data help federal, local and private sector entities allocate critical resources in communities nationwide.
In addition to Census’ work, Commerce plays several important roles in the administration’s efforts to fight poverty. Our Economic Development Administration provides grants that support critical infrastructure for job training and business development in economically distressed and underserved communities. Our Minority Business Development Agency runs a nationwide network of business development centers that work with local minority-owned businesses to help them grow and create jobs.
Further, the Department’s recently released “Open for Business Agenda” makes skills training a key policy priority. We plan to partner with federal agencies to transform workforce development, ensuring that skills training programs are driven by industry needs. These efforts are crucial for helping the millions of underemployed or unemployed Americans get the skills needed to fill the approximately 3.9 million open jobs now and the millions more that will open in the future.
While poverty is not yet history, history has proven that meaningful progress is possible when we work together. The Department of Commerce is committed to doing our part to strengthen communities, help create more jobs, build a more skilled, 21st century workforce, and expand economic opportunities for all Americans.
Josh Dickson is the Director of the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships