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Harkin Statement Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of President Johnson’s Address Declaring “Unconditional War on Poverty in America”

January 8, 2014

Harkin Statement Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of President Johnson’s Address Declaring “Unconditional War on Poverty in America”

*As Prepared For Delivery*

WASHINGTON, D.C.—In a floor speech today, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), commemorated the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” address by speaking about the many breakthroughs and progress the country has achieved thanks to the many programs initiated under the Great Society. Harkin then outlined a bold agenda for the road ahead, identifying key efforts—like his bill to raise the minimum wage to $10.10—to expand opportunity for all Americans at the beginning of the new legislative session.

“I have not come to the floor, today, just to look back fondly and nostalgically to the achievements of the Great Society.  I am here, at the beginning of this legislative year, to urge my colleagues to look with fresh eyes at the urgent economic challenges confronting the American people today,” Harkin said.  “We need to think more broadly – and with more ambitious vision – about how we in Congress can come together to create a greater society, an America of greater opportunity, greater economic mobility, greater fairness. 

“We need to create a New America. 

“Let us dare to imagine a New America where every child has access to quality early learning. 

“Let us dare to imagine public investments to create a truly 21st century infrastructure, modernizing our roads, bridges, ports and canals . . . building high-speed rail connecting Maine to Miami, and Seattle to San Diego.  A new infrastructure for a New America.

“Let us dare to imagine retrofitting all of our buildings to make them energy efficient – making wind, solar, geothermal, and other renewables the main sources of our energy.  A renewable energy basis for a New America.

“Let us dare to imagine a doubling of our investment in the National Institutes of Health, making possible a real war on cancer and Alzheimer’s and other devastating diseases.  Think of that: a New America, free of cancer and Alzheimer’s.

“Let us dare to imagine a true health care system where wellness, prevention, and public health are the first priority, fully funded – keeping people healthy in the first place. 

“Let us dare to imagine a new retirement system, where every worker builds a private pension that can’t be touched until they retire . . . and a stronger Social Security system, solvent, secure, and with increased benefits for the next 50 years.  A secure retirement for a New America.

“These are the big challenges that we in Congress should be addressing.”

The full text of Harkin’s speech, as prepared for delivery, is as follows.

“Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson came before Congress and spoke these bold words:  ‘This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.’

“Lyndon Johnson, as we all know, was born and raised amidst stark poverty in Texas Hill Country, coming of age during the Great Depression.  From hard personal experience, he understood how poor schools, empty stomachs, and bad health make a mockery of America’s promise of equal opportunity for all. 

“When President Johnson delivered that historic State of the Union address, our nation was enjoying unprecedented post-war prosperity.  We had become, in John Kenneth Galbraith’s famous words, the ‘affluent society.’  However, in the midst of this nation of prosperity and plenty, there was also ‘the other America’ – as author Michael Herrington called it – fully one fifth of our population trapped in poverty.  Across Appalachia, in urban ghettos, in large swaths of rural America, millions of American children were being raised in shacks and slums, going to bed hungry, attending grossly substandard schools.

“Worse, experts described this poverty as intractable.  Experts warned that, despite the nation’s overall prosperity, poverty was growing more widespread, because – as one study put it – the poor were ‘not part of the economic structure.’ 

“A report by the president’s Council of Economic Advisors asserted that ‘future economic growth alone will provide relatively few escapes from poverty.’  Of course, it is much the same today:  Economic growth alone will provide few escapes from poverty if 95 percent of income gains are going to the top one percent, and if the rewards of productivity gains go not to workers but to shareholders.

“It was in this context that President Johnson – less than two months in office – summoned the nation to that ‘unconditional war on poverty.’  For LBJ, this was both an economic challenge and a profound moral challenge; it was about doing justice.

“In his speech to Congress, he said:  ‘Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom.  The cause may lie deeper – in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.’

“He continued:  ‘Our chief weapons . . . will be better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities to help more Americans, especially young Americans, to escape from squalor and misery and unemployment rolls where other citizens help to carry them.’

“In the months that followed this State of the Union address, President Johnson proposed specific programs to attack poverty and inequality, and he articulated his broader vision for what he called a Great Society.

“There is no better place to appreciate the boldness and accomplishment of this era than at the LBJ Library and Museum in Austin, Texas.  My favorite part is a room commemorating the Great Society,with plaques on the wall listing the incredible array of legislation that President Johnson passed into law: The great Civil Rights Acts, the Voting Rights Act, Job Corps, VISTA, Upward Bound, the Food Stamp program, legal services for the poor, the Community Action program, Community Health Centers, Head Start, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Higher Education Act, Medicare, Medicaid, the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities, public broadcasting, the National Mass Transportation Act, the Cigarette Labeling Act, the Clean Air Act, the Wilderness Act.

“These Great Society programs have defined the modern United States of America as a compassionate, inclusive society . . . a genuine opportunity society where everyone can contribute their talents and abilities. 

“Last month, on December 4, in his landmark speech on inequality, President Obama noted that these and other initiatives have helped to reduce the poverty rate by 40 percent since the 1960s.  President Obama said:  ‘These endeavors didn’t just make us a better country; they reaffirmed that we are a great country.’

“However, I must acknowledge that there are some who profoundly disagree with this assessment of the War on Poverty and the Great Society.  They insist it was a great failure.  Indeed, I have heard this claim from many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle since I first came to Congress in 1975.  This supposed ‘failure’ has become an article of faith and dogma among conservatives. 

“As President Reagan said on May 9, 1983: ‘The great expansion of government programs that took place under the aegis of the Great Society coincided with an end to economic progress for America’s poor people.’

“That’s quite an assertion!  So allow me a few minutes to point out the many ‘failures’ of the War on Poverty and the Great Society.

“A good place to start is by pointing out the ‘failure’ of Medicare.  At the bill-signing ceremony for the Social Security Amendments Act on July 30, 1965, President Johnson enrolled former President Harry Truman as the first Medicare beneficiary and presented him with the first Medicare card.

“These days, we talk about life after age 65 as the ‘golden years.’  Well, life after age 65 used to be the nightmare years – with tens of millions of Americans unable to afford even basic medical care . . . condemned to living out their senior years in the misery of untreated or poorly treated illness.  In 1967, the poverty rate among older Americans was nearly 28 percent.  Since 1967, the poverty rate among seniors has fallen by nearly two thirds. 

“I remember my father, in his late 70s, had never had access to regular health care in his life.  He had only a sixth-grade education.  He worked as a coal miner and suffered from chronic black-lung disease.  So, in 1965, Medicare had huge consequences for him.  His new Medicare card gave him access to health care.  And it gave him something else; it gave him the dignity and security of knowing that he could see a doctor when he needed to in his old age.

“The Great Society also gave birth to community health centers to provide essential medical care to the poor.  The first two community health centers were opened in 1964 in Boston, Massachusetts and rural Mississippi.  This model of providing basic health services to the uninsured and underserved was an enormous success.  Today, it has been expanded to include more than 1,200 community health centers in more than 9,000 locations, serving more than 22 million patients annually.  Some failure!

“Another ‘failure’ of the Great Society was the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ESEA.  At least since Brown v. Board of Education, Americans acknowledged that we had two school systems – one for the middle class and well-off, and a grossly inferior one for the poor.  ESEA said that all children, regardless of background, can learn, and the federal government will provide resources to help create equity among our schools.  Educating children of poverty will always be challenging, and large achievement gaps still persist.  But to call this a ‘failure’ is misguided.  Title I assistance to America’s neediest schools has made a dramatic difference for the good for millions of children.  Will any Senator who wants to repeal Title I, please step forward and speak up.  I doubt there will be any takers. 

“And what about the ‘failure’ of the Higher Education Act?  In 1965, it was rare for young people from disadvantaged and low-income backgrounds to go to college.  So President Johnson and Congress passed the Higher Education Act, creating need-based grants and loans with reduced interest rates.  Today, Pell Grants – created in a later version of the Higher Education Act – help more than nine million low-income students gain access to higher education.  The Higher Education Act has swung open the doors to college for countless Americans, creating new opportunity and access to the American Dream.

“Again, some see this as a ‘failure’ – just another government hand-out that prevents people from standing on their own feet.  Well, you can decide for yourself if vastly expanding access to higher education constitutes a ‘failure.’  But before you do, talk to a lower-income student striving to become a doctor, the first in her family to go to college, thanks to Pell Grants.  Ask her if she feels like she’s an undeserving ‘taker,’ unwilling to stand on her own feet.

“In August 1964, Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Food Stamp Act.  Prior to that act, hunger and malnutrition were shockingly widespread in America, especially in rural areas and inner cities.  Today, we still have millions of ‘food insecure’ people in America.  But, thanks to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, abject hunger is rare.  And tens of millions of Americans – more than half of them children – are ensured a basic nutritional minimum. 

“Is this another ‘failure?’  Apparently, many members of this body think so.  In June of 2012, 33 Republican Senators voted to block-grant the SNAP program, a proposal that would have slashed funding by $300 billion over 10 years.  I ask Senators who voted for those cuts:  Have you ever talked to a first-grader who is finally able to concentrate in class because she had a breakfast paid for by food stamps?  Have you asked her whether she’d prefer to tough it out without a meal to start the day? 

“In 1965, LBJ’s Office of Economic Opportunity created 269 local legal services offices across the country, providing assistance to low-income Americans.  This later evolved into the Legal Services Corporation.  As a former Legal Aid lawyer, I know firsthand what a difference this can make in so many circumstances – a struggling family facing foreclosure, a battered woman trying to leave an abusive marriage, a senior citizen victimized by a financial scam.  I know that, without access to an attorney, the poor are often powerless against the injustices they suffer.  Is the dedicated work of Legal Aid attorneys a ‘failure?’  I vigorously disagree.  And the American Bar Association vigorously disagrees; it strongly supports Legal Services.    Every federal judge and Supreme Court justice, in their oath of office, swears to ‘administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich.’  It is Legal Services lawyers who help to translate that ideal into a reality in courtrooms all across America.

“Our front-line soldiers in the War on Poverty are the dedicated professionals and volunteers in Community Action Agencies, funded by the federal Community Services Block Grant.  In 2012, these locally driven agencies served nearly 19 million low-income Americans, including more than five million children, more than two million people with disabilities, and two and a half million seniors.  These agencies equip people with skills to return to work; they provide food, clothing, and other emergency assistance; they administer Head Start pre-school programs, and much more.

“You decide if the Community Services Block Grant has been a ‘failure.’  But, first, drop in on a Community Action Agency in your State, and see for yourself the amazing work they do in relieving poverty and helping people to escape it.   Speak to members of a local Community Action Agency board – local business people, lawyers, bankers, as well as those who receive services – they will tell you how these agencies do so much with so little, performing indispensable services in the community.

“I could spend hours citing so many other Great Society initiatives.  But let me mention just one more, the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Prior to that act, African-Americans faced open, legalized discrimination and segregation – an American version of apartheid.  In many parts of our country, including right here in Washington, D.C., African-Americans could not eat at the same lunch counter with whites.  They could not use the same bathrooms, the same swimming pools, the same water fountains.  They literally were consigned to the back of the bus. 

“Well, because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, those Jim Crow laws and practices were ended in the United States of America.  It became illegal to discriminate based on race, color, religion, gender, or national origin.  Some apparently call that a ‘failure’ – one of the Great Society’s many ‘failures.’  Well, you can decide for yourself.

“President Reagan, in his State of the Union address in 1988, said that the Great Society ‘declared war on poverty, and poverty won.’  That’s a catchy one-liner.  But with all due respect to President Reagan, it simply is not historically accurate.  Not even close! 

“From the time President Johnson took office in 1963 until 1970, as the full impact of the Great Society programs began to be felt, the number of Americans living below the poverty line dropped from 22.2 percent down to 12.6 percent.  The poverty rate for African-Americans fell from 55 percent in 1960 to 27 percent in 1968.  The poverty rate among the elderly fell by two-thirds!  The great shame is that this progress was cut short.  The War on Poverty gave way to the war in Vietnam, and then retrenchment in later administrations, which cared less about giving a hand-up to the poor than about giving hand-outs to the rich in the form of giant tax breaks and other advantages.

“The Great Society has been a historic success.  However, I must note that, 50 years later, our nation confronts a new set of economic challenges – challenges that are every bit as dangerous to our democracy, every bit as daunting and intractable, as those confronted by President Johnson and the Congresses of his time. 

“Our economy is still struggling to recover from the Great Recession.  The sluggish recovery has left us with chronic unemployment and a middle class in crisis.  Social mobility – the ability to work your way up the economic ladder – is now lower in the United States than in Europe. 

“For the vast majority of American workers, incomes have been stagnant for decades.  But the rich have grown fabulously richer.  Think about this: Since the official end of the Great Recession in 2009, 95 percent of income gains in the U.S. have gone to the wealthiest one percent.

“Unlike in President Johnson’s day, today it is not only the poor who are at risk; our great middle class is endangered.  Millions of formerly middle-class Americans have lost their jobs, their homes, their savings, their hopes for a decent retirement.  For too many of our citizens, the American Dream has become hopelessly out of reach.

“This is the crisis, this is the challenge of our day.  And are we rising to meet this challenge as previous generations of Americans have done?  No, we are not!

“Here inside the Washington bubble, too many of our political leaders have persuaded themselves that the biggest issue of the day is the budget deficit.  Ignoring chronic unemployment and a struggling economy, this 113th Congress and the previous Congress have pursued policies of relentless austerity – slashing budgets, defunding research and investment, destroying jobs, and even refusing to extend federal unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, 1.3 million of whom lost their last lifeline of support just three days after Christmas.

“I am disturbed by an apparent shift of attitude by many elected leaders toward the ordinary people who do the hard, day-in-and-day-out work that makes our country strong.  We are seeing an attitude of harshness.

“We used to agree that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you should be able to earn enough to support your family and keep a roof over your head, put some money away for a rainy day, and have a secure retirement.  We used to agree that if you lose your job through no fault of your own, especially at a time of chronic unemployment, you should have some support while you’re looking for new work. We used to agree – on both sides of the aisle – that no child in this country should go to bed hungry at night.

“But in recent years, these fundamental principles and values have come under attack in our public discourse.  For instance, recently on a Sunday talk show, the junior Senator from Kentucky said that it would be a ‘disservice’ to the long-term jobless to extend federal unemployment insurance; they would be better off fending for themselves.  For many, the new attitude is ‘tough luck, you’re on your own.’ 

“If you struggle, even if you face insurmountable challenges, well, it’s probably your own fault.  Tough luck, you’re on your own.

“If you’re are a kid born into poverty, or a single parent working for minimum wage, struggling to pay the bills and put food on the table – tough luck, you’re on your own.  

“If you’re a 55-year-old worker who has lost her job due to outsourcing or technological change – tough luck, you’re on your own.  

“If you are a person with a significant disability, struggling to find work and independence and dignity – tough luck, you’re on your own.

“There is a harshness among too many in powerful positions toward those Americans who have tough lives, are ill-educated or marginally employed, or who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

“President Johnson would rebuke this harshness and callousness.  As he said in remarks, three months after his War on Poverty speech:  ‘[God] will judge his children not by their prayers and by their pretensions, but by their mercy to the poor and their understanding of the weak.  I tremble for our people if at the time of our greatest prosperity we turn our back on the moral obligations of our deepest faith.’

“And I remind my colleagues that, today, we are still a nation of great prosperity; we are still the wealthiest nation in the world.  Our problem is that this prosperity and wealth is concentrated at the very top; the workers who created it are not getting their fair share. 

“So, on this 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s War on Poverty address, I cannot agree with those who say that the budget deficit is our No. 1 priority.  I am concerned about far more urgent deficits – the deficit of jobs and opportunity, the deficit of research and investment, the deficit of early education for all of our children, and the deficit of basic human understanding and empathy for those in the shadows of life.

“And I am also concerned about the deficit of imagination, today, in Washington.  I am disturbed by our failure to confront today’s economic challenges with the boldness and vision that earlier generations of Americans summoned in times of national challenge.

“Indeed, our Republican friends reject the very possibility that the federal government can act to spur economic growth and create good, middle-class jobs.  This is their ideological position, and they’re sticking to it.  But this flies in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary across our nation’s history.

“Think of President Lincoln, who insisted that every American has a ‘right to rise.’  To that end, he created the land-grant college system, provided for the transcontinental railroad, and established the Department of Agriculture with a mission to help farmers to boost their production and income, and raise their standard of living.

“Think of President Teddy Roosevelt, who fought for safe workplaces, the eight-hour workday, and to bust the trusts that were strangling opportunity for ordinary Americans.  

“Think of FDR, who put to work millions of unemployed Americans – including my father in the Work Projects Administration – building roads, dams, bridges, and schools; and who created Social Security to end the scourge of poverty in old age.

“Think of President Eisenhower, who championed investment in our infrastructure, beginning with the interstate highway system, which has expanded commerce and opportunity for nearly six decades, now. 

“And, as we are doing today, let us pay tribute to LBJ and the enormous achievements of his War on Poverty and Great Society.

“I have not come to the floor, today, just to look back fondly and nostalgically to the achievements of the Great Society.  I am here, at the beginning of this legislative year, to urge my colleagues to look with fresh eyes at the urgent economic challenges confronting the American people today. 

“We need to think more broadly – and with more ambitious vision – about how we in Congress can come together to create a greater society, an America of greater opportunity, greater economic mobility, greater fairness.

“We need to create a New America. 

“Let us dare to imagine a New America where every child has access to quality early learning. 

“Let us dare to imagine public investments to create a truly 21st century infrastructure, modernizing our roads, bridges, ports and canals . . . building high-speed rail connecting Maine to Miami, and Seattle to San Diego.  A new infrastructure for a New America.

“Let us dare to imagine retrofitting all of our buildings to make them energy efficient – making wind, solar, geothermal, and other renewables the main sources of our energy.  A renewable energy basis for a New America.

“Let us dare to imagine a doubling of our investment in the National Institutes of Health, making possible a real war on cancer and Alzheimer’s and other devastating diseases.  Think of that: a New America, free of cancer and Alzheimer’s.

“Let us dare to imagine a true health care system where wellness, prevention, and public health are the first priority, fully funded – keeping people healthy in the first place. 

“Let us dare to imagine a new retirement system, where every worker builds a private pension that can’t be touched until they retire . . . and a stronger Social Security system, solvent, secure, and with increased benefits for the next 50 years.  A secure retirement for a New America.

“These are the big challenges that we in Congress should be addressing.

“And, by all means, there are also more urgent priorities, demanding our immediate attention, beginning with the need to extend federal unemployment insurance for the long-term jobless.  Some 1.3 million Americans were cut off from this basic assistance two weeks ago, and another 3.6 million Americans will be cut off over the course of 2014.  These benefits are not much – an average of just $287 a week – but they make a critical difference for those who have no other lifeline.  This must be the Senate’s most urgent priority in these initial days of the session.

“In addition, the Senate will soon take up my bill to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and link it to future cost-of-living increases.  Since the minimum wage peaked in 1968 as part of the Great Society, it has lost one-third of its buying power.  Over the decades, the minimum wage has become a poverty wage – and no American who works a full-time job should be consigned to poverty. 

“Today, we confront huge economic challenges.  As Americans, we pride ourselves on our robust free market system.  And some say that the unfettered free marketplace will solve all our problems.  They glorify the ideas of Ayn Rand and of academic theorists who say greed is good, extremes of inequality are necessary, and poverty is deserved.  Which reminds me of the great words of Bertrand Russell, nearly a century ago.  He said:  ‘The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy – that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.’

“And I remind my colleagues that it is precisely the unrestrained, often run-amok free marketplace that has created so many of the problems we face today: financial and real estate bubbles, chronic unemployment, stagnant wages, gaping income inequality, disappearing pensions, and on and on.  Like a busy highway system, our free marketplace works best when all the players obey essential rules of the road – rules put in place by government to avoid crashes and bubbles, and to rein in wasteful money manipulators. 

“And there are some things – big national undertakings – that the private sector simply is not capable of doing.  At critical junctures going back to the beginning of our Republic, Congresses and Presidents have acted decisively to spur economic growth, foster innovation, and help create jobs. And, no question, that is where we are falling short today.

“Members of Congress and elected officials across America can learn from the successes of the War on Poverty and Great Society.  We need a new generation of leaders with Lyndon Johnson’s passionate commitment to improving education, expanding opportunity, fighting inequality and discrimination.

“As I said, we need to come together to create a greater society, a New America.  We need to act with boldness and vision.

“The War on Poverty and the Great Society initiatives have defined the modern United States of America as a compassionate, inclusive society . . . a genuine opportunity society where everyone can contribute their talents and abilities. 

“We see the Great Society, today, in cleaner air and water . . .  young people from poor backgrounds attending college . . . seniors and poor people who have access to decent medical care . . . people of color exercising their right to vote and to live in the neighborhood of their choice. 

“We see the Great Society in Head Start, quality public schools, vocational education programs, and college grants and loans – all those rungs on the ladder of opportunity that put the American Dream in reach of every citizen, even those from humble, hardscrabble backgrounds like Lyndon Johnson himself.

“And notice I said ‘ladder’ of opportunity, not ‘escalator.’  An escalator is a free ride; with a ladder, you need to exert your energy and initiative to rise higher.  But there need to be strong rungs on that ladder, many of them put there by government and by society acting together: affordable child-care programs, early learning, quality public schools, Pell Grants, and on and on. 

“Sometimes people will fall off of that ladder – they will lose their job, become disabled, contract a terrible illness.  In those cases, it is the moral duty of government and society working collectively to provide a hand back up: things like unemployment insurance, disability insurance, and job training.

“Sometimes people are not physically able to climb that ladder, including millions of Americans with disabilities.   That’s why, in 1990, Congress created a ramp of opportunity called the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Again, I said ‘ramp,’ not ‘moving walkway.’  People with disabilities must exert energy and initiative, but, with the ADA, we removed the barriers and discrimination that kept them down.  

“Like every great leader in our nation’s history, Lyndon Johnson brought us a giant step closer to achieving our highest ideals as a people.  He fought passionately for social and economic justice for all Americans.  He fought to put the American Dream within reach of every citizen – and he saw this as a moral imperative.

“This is the legacy we salute, today, on this 50th anniversary of President Johnson’s great address to Congress. 

“And it is this spirit of ambitious public purpose that we must strive to emulate in the legislative year ahead.”

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