News and Tribune

January 23, 2014

ANDERSON: The War on Poverty: What if we really treated it as a War?

Local guest columnist

— Marco Rubio and the many like him amuse me with their way with words. During my lifetime I have heard the failure of the war or poverty declared not once, not twice, but four times! The first was with the Gramm Rudman cuts in 1983, the second in the 90s with Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America, the third just randomly with Rubio’s immediate predecessors, and now Rubio and his peers.

The War on Poverty was declared by President Lyndon Johnson in his efforts to create a “Great Society” where education, services, training, and safety nets were established to help lift people out of poverty. That particular effort took place in 1964, it was funded and established valuable programs that did great work: Head Start; the Mental Health Act; Community Action Agencies; Housing programs; and nutrition programs. Educational/student loans and many other help programs began.

Like any war, the first goal was to put “boots on the ground” through many different venues. I was 13 in 1964 and lived in Blackiston Mill. My family made to much money to receive Head Start services [my dad was a minister and truck driver and earned less than 13,000 annually at the time] so, it was a program truly designed for the poorest of the poor. Our community housed one of the first centers in the county. Teachers visited theirs students homes, identified needs, tried to help. For the poor of the community it provided opportunity, my mother grieved not being able to send my sister to Head Start.

Having been raised in Hazard, Ky., she knew better than most the importance of an education, she only had a third grade education and my dad had no formal education. They wanted so much more for their seven children. They worked hard to obtain education for their children and to teach us the value of hard work, but just the words “Head Start” had a profound impact on my mother.

So many of our neighbors benefited. Parents were identified who needed energy assistance or weatherization services and homes got warmer, case workers helped people learn how to sew, how to manage a food budget, and how to grow food. It truly was “boots on the ground.” It was about opportunity and President Johnson knew that, it was supposed to help. It wasn’t cheap. Like any war, it would cost a great deal.

In 1983, I was no longer the kid from the Mill, I was the planner for the Community Action Agency. I went to work there in 1979 as an Energy Program and the cycle had come full circle. As people had come to my neighborhood I was going to Lincoln Park and assisting in building solar panels on the community building, writing grants for transportation vehicles, and analyzing the effectiveness of the “War on Poverty” programs. And then came Reaganomics and the gutting of that “war effort”. The Gramm Rudman Act was passed and the domestic budget lost 75 percent of its funding over a three year period. Many programs were lost and many [public housing, Section 8, and Community Action] never fully recovered. Today with more people in America than ever we are still not back to the levels of 1983 on the Section 8 programs.

The money we have spent on war. Yet the very “wars” we declared in our own country on poverty and drugs were never really fully funded and were the first cut. If you had removed 75 percent of the budget for defense during the military interventions over the last few years would they have been at all successful or even serious in their attempts to stabilize other countries. No. And the War on Poverty was no different. Just as in Afghanistan, the boots on the ground were sent home. While many of the programs remained most were dramatically reduced and have continued to be cut and eliminated. There is very little programming available today for job training and placement, yet we are amazed when people remain on the unemployment rolls. The boots have gone home and those “soldiers” who would have helped people realize how important finishing their GEDs and learning a new skill really weren’t there anymore.

Declaring “The War on Poverty” a failure is a language ploy that caters to the mindset that “big” government isn’t what we want. Head Start is federally funded but locally administered. The War on Poverty brought our tax dollars home through those programs and hired and trained local people. It was an investment in the people of this country, just as we have invested in rebuilding Iraq and other countries we needed to invest in our own. Rubio’s rhetoric plays to the smallest common denominator in man not the biggest. He speaks of the cost and the benefits. In reality, if we had continued the investment today that we primarily gutted in 1983, maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t have needed new programming in drugs and alcohol, crime reduction, and employment. Maybe, just maybe, our society would be truly a great society with educated people working to bring people up as opposed to keeping them trapped in poverty.

— Barb Anderson, Jeffersonville, is executive director of Haven House Services Inc. Reach her by email at