ACF’s War on Poverty Kick-Off

ACF’s War on Poverty Kick-Off Event
January 29, 2014
Acting Assistant Secretary Mark Greenberg

Good afternoon. Thank you for joining us today in our first program looking backward and forward in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the initiation of the War on Poverty. I want to begin by thanking Jeannie and the staff of the Office of Community Services and others who have worked with them in planning this and related events. As we’ll be discussing over the year, a set of ACF programs and offices --- notably, OCS, ANA, and the Office of Head Start, very directly have roots in the earliest days of the development of the War on Poverty, and we’ll be doing more to explore and learn about their proud 50 year history.

When we first started talking about doing this set of events, we knew we faced a set of challenges in how to get the content and balance right, for a number of reasons. First, if you’ve been following the recent press, you know that the legacy and meaning of the War and Poverty is sharply contested. There’s not agreement on what programs and initiatives comprised the War on Poverty; whether or when it ended; how to measure the progress over the past fifty years; how to ascribe responsibility for the progress that occurred or blame for the progress that didn’t occur. It’s clear that for some, the fact that we still have poverty is evidence that the War on Poverty failed. On the other hand, recent work using a more comprehensive measure of poverty tells us that the poverty rate has dropped by nearly 40 percent since 1967, overwhelmingly because of actions taken by government.

The challenge of measurement is further complicated by the question of what ought to be measured. For many, the War on Poverty is viewed as largely or primarily about expansion of government assistance or welfare. But that concept would have been unrecognizable to President Johnson and the initiators of the War on Poverty. In my note a couple of weeks ago, I quoted from President Johnson’s State of the Union, where he said “Our chief weapons in a more pinpointed attack will be better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities to help more Americans.” And, the Council of Economic Advisors report that followed the State of the Union laid out a multi-pronged strategy: accelerating economic growth; fighting discrimination; improving regional economies; rehabilitating urban and rural communities; improving labor markets; expanding educational opportunities; enlarging job opportunities for youth; improving the Nation’s health; promoting adult education and training; and assisting the elderly and disabled. And, the initiation of the War on Poverty was inextricably linked to the struggle for civil rights and the goals of ending discrimination and segregation.

The years immediately after the declaration of the War on Poverty were some of the most dramatic, contentious, and conflict-ridden in the nation’s modern history. You’ll see some of that today in the excerpt from the documentary about Sargent Shriver and his times. That’s one key part of the story. But, there are other parts ---- the progress in civil rights, the enactment of Medicaid and Medicare, the nationwide implementation of Head Start, the dramatic improvements in health, and educational access, and nutrition, and opportunity, all attributable to the federal commitment to address poverty and build a great society.

So, part of the challenge we face is better understanding the scope of the effort and the nature of the accomplishments. But, any time we look back in history, apart from just wanting to know the story, we need to ask what we can learn from the experience that help inform our current efforts. The standard as we look back can’t be “did they get everything right.” Nobody gets everything right, today, or yesterday, or 50 years ago, and it’s hard to think of any area of policy or knowledge where we’d take pride in saying that we haven’t learned anything in 50 years. Sargent Shriver urged that the battle be “fought by those who are not afraid to question, analyze and criticize the relevancy of the programs.” That perspective needs to guide what we can learn from experience just as it informs our work every day at ACF.

Today, this work takes on particular relevance as President Obama has declared that addressing inequality and economic mobility, and ensuring that our economy works for all is the defining challenge of our time. Addressing economic mobility and addressing poverty are not identical --- but, it’s difficult to see how the nation can make progress in improving mobility without also providing significant attention to sustained and persistent poverty.

So, over the course of this year, we look forward to a set of events that can help us understand the history, help us understand the current state of poverty in America, help us understand the lessons from the past, and the current debates and new thinking, about poverty, opportunity, and mobility. There’s much in the planning stages, but we continue to welcome thoughts about what else we should take on.

I want to end with a personal note. One early accomplishment of the War in Poverty was the establishment of a federal role in providing legal services to the poor. I spent my first ten years out of law school as a legal services lawyer in Florida and California. The experience informed much of what I’ve done throughout my professional career and much of what I do today. Like many of you, my experience in working with poor families, seeing their needs and struggles, how systems and programs could help, and what the impacts were when systems and programs failed to do so, has been fundamental to my work and perspectives. So, I’m proud to be participating in our efforts to look backward and forward, and in the continuing contributions of ACF.

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