War On Poverty:The Only War Worth Fighting For


Almost 46 years ago, on January 8 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on poverty” in his first State of The Union speech. Making poverty a national priority set in motion a series of bills and acts such as head start, food stamps, Medicare & Medicaid. The programs initiated by Lyndon Johnson, which still constitute the backbone of what is left of America’s social safety net, brought about real results, reducing rate of poverty and improved living standards for America’s poor.

However, the poverty rate has remained steady since the late 1970’s, and kept increasing as a consequence of “Reaganomic”, which can be described as the systematic de-regulation of Wall Street and cuts on social programs. Ronald Reagan’s policies were more or less carried on by Bush Senior, Bill Clinton and Bush Junior with catastrophic consequences for America’s  poor.

Ronald Reagan and others on the political right convinced many that the war on poverty represented a failure of big government. According to conservative America, instead of helping to alleviate poverty the programs supposedly “encouraged sloth, dependency, crime, single parenthood and unproductive citizens”.

In Lyndon Johnson’s State of the Union speech, he declared an “unconditional war on poverty in America”, and promised “not to rest until the war is won”. His audience thundered in ovation. In absolute contrast, almost a quarter century later in Ronald Reagan’s 1988 final State of the Union speech, the teflon President announced cynically that in “America’s war on poverty, poverty won”. His audience rumbled idiotically with laughter, not realizing that the economic and social policies they supported had failed America’s poor and middle-class.

The economic and financial crash of last year would prevent people such as Ronald Reagan to be as arrogant and mean spirited today as he was in 1988, at least not in public. Regardless, today more than ever, poverty and its extreme form homelessness, is the true scandal of American society.

Currently, the top 1 percent  of the United States population, in terms of income and assets, control 45 percent of the total financial wealth. On the other hand, the bottom 80 percent control a meager 7 percent. To make an historical comparison, such disparity of wealth and social  inequalities were also prevalent in France and Russia before the French Revolution in 1789 and the Russian Revolution in 1917. This slippery slope of an extreme gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is not sustainable in the long term.

With thanksgiving right around the corner, there is no better time to remember that countless people are in needs of the most basic necessities or even homeless. For them, the so called American dream has become a nightmare.

Not to worry, the 1 percent American elite is doing fine, Wall Street has almost fully recovered from the crash, and as matter of fact, a firm like Goldman Sachs will pay its top executives 21 billion in obscene bonuses. On the other hand, for Main Street it is joblessness, foreclosures and sometime even collecting cans and glass from garbage cans for recycling cash. The American middle class  dream of the white-picked-fence home is in shamble, the middle class is getting poorer and more poor are becoming homeless in this dreadful race to the bottom.

Lyndon Johnson had the right idea, unfortunately, and judging by his first year in office, it doesn’t seem that President Obama has neither the will nor even the intention to carry on with the battle started by Lyndon Johnson. From all the fake and conceptual wars such as the “war on terror” or the “war on drugs”, and the real wars such as the one in Iraq and Afghanistan; the only one worth fighting for was Johnson’s war on poverty. When Reagan got elected, he made sure that the war on poverty would be lost.

The photographs on top of this article were taken between 1984 and 2008. All photographs by Gilbert Mercier. All rights reserved for all media.


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