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The State of Poverty 50 Years Ago and Now

Bread for the World Welcomes New Debate about Poverty

February 2014

This year marks a half century since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty. Bread for the World welcomes a new bipartisan debate about how to reduce poverty.

President Obama gave a major address on income and opportunity on Dec. 4, and Republicans are now also talking about poverty. Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich recently distanced himself from what he called the "war on the poor" in Washington. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) also made speeches about poverty as the anniversary of the War on Poverty was being commemorated.

"Partly because of the War on Poverty, we cut the poverty rate in half during the 1960s and early 1970s," noted Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World. "But we haven't made much progress since then, mainly because reducing poverty hasn’t been a national priority. No president since Lyndon Johnson has made reducing poverty one of his top five priorities."

The economic crisis that began in 2008 has increased hunger and poverty. Over the last three years, Washington has been preoccupied with deficit reduction, with some in Congress pushing for deep cuts in programs focused on hunger and poverty.

"Lots of people are struggling economically, and they voted in large numbers in the last election," said Beckmann. "That has encouraged leaders in both parties to explain how they propose to provide help and opportunity for families that struggle to buy groceries."

Bread for the World Institute outlined its own plan for ending hunger in America in its 2014 Hunger Report, released just before Thanksgiving. Bread for the World's strategy stresses policies to reduce unemployment and improve the quality of jobs. It also urges a strong safety net, investments in people, and partnerships between community organizations and government programs.

"The world as a whole is making dramatic progress against hunger and poverty," explained Beckmann. "If countries as different as Brazil, Bangladesh, and Great Britain can reduce poverty, so can the U.S.A. Overcoming hunger and poverty should be a priority for both parties."

Another milestone in the recent debate about poverty came in Obama’s State of the Union address on Jan. 28. The speech was consistent with the Hunger Report in its focus on income equality.

"President Obama said it best when he said, 'The best measure of opportunity is access to a good job.' We are encouraged by his charge to Congress to approve legislation that creates jobs. This is point one of our 2014 Hunger Report," said Beckmann.

Bread noted that with 10.4 million unemployed people in America, this State of the Union address was particularly timely.

As we reflect on what has been done to fight poverty in the last 50 years, Bread also looks to the future and wants the current president to take bold action like one of his predecessors. "Together with Bread for the World’s thousands of members and thousands of local churches, we urge President Obama to set a goal and work with Congress to enact a plan to end hunger by 2030," Beckmann said.

Photo: President Lyndon B. Johnson shakes the hand of one of the residents of Appalachia during his 1964 poverty tour. (LBJ library photo by Cecil Stoughton)

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