GUEST BLOGGER: Sid Mohn, President, Heartland Alliance

It’s been 50 years since Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of the War on Poverty. In that time much has changed, and yet much has stayed the same. Fifty years ago, the faces of poverty were children, the elderly, and those living in rural areas. And while poverty amongst these groups is still a cause for concern, today new faces are emerging. Among them are single mothers and workers, as well as those in suburban areas. What remains the same is the basic injustice of it. Poverty is a cycle built upon a lack of the most basic human need – the opportunity to build a safe, stable, healthy life. The programs developed through the War on Poverty can turn that cycle around, but today’s changing needs demand we look at on-the-ground realities with fresh eyes.

To look at the current poverty rate of 15%, it would seem these programs have had little effect. In fact, the opposite is true. The War on Poverty spawned Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, food stamps, housing programs, and job training, among others. They work together holistically, and together they’ve had an incredible impact in both preventing and mitigating the most devastating effects of poverty. It’s estimated that without government programs, the national poverty rate wouldn’t be near today’s 15% or even 19% as it was in the 1960’s, but a staggering 31% – almost a third of the population. The War on Poverty not only created programs to address immediate needs. It also offered a way out, preventing a fall into increasingly inescapable depths of poverty.

One key underpinning of poverty today is the nature of employment, which is changing drastically. In the 1960’s, if you were working, you could provide for your family. Today, that’s not the case. At Heartland Alliance, the Midwest’s leading anti-poverty organization, we’ve recently released our yearly report on poverty in Illinois (where we’re based). It’s the most comprehensive of its kind and it found that 388,000 impoverished Illinoisans live in a household where someone works full-time, a trend that’s growing across the nation.

In line with that, as women have increasingly entered the workforce and the percentage of single parents has increased, the need for affordable childcare and transportation has grown. Yet, its availability has not. Working parents find themselves trapped in a cycle where they must work to support their families, but after childcare costs their take home pay is so low that they’re barely able to keep the lights on. In addition, the demographic of our population overall has changed. Today, we as a country are increasingly older and more likely to be minority, immigrant, and/or living in single female-headed households.

Therefore, we must rededicate ourselves to the principles that the War on Poverty was built upon – that everyone deserves the opportunity to support themselves and live with dignity. We all deserve to live free from hunger, oppression, illness, homelessness, joblessness, and injustice. Programs created under the War on Poverty provide the opportunities people need to stabilize their lives, building a future of safety and stability. This is the legacy and the torch we must carry if we are to ensure people a more stable future for themselves and their families.

Sid Mohn is responsible for developing and implementing the strategic plan that allows the Heartland Alliance to meet its mission. Through his passion and vision, Dr. Mohn has enabled the organization and its partners to become the premier service-based human rights organization in the Midwest.