On March 16, 1964, in a special message to Congress, President Lyndon Johnson said, “Because it is right, because it is wise, and because, for the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty, I submit, for the consideration of the Congress and the country, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964.” This was his famous declaration of war on poverty. But poverty is not an easy enemy to conquer.
Since President Johnson began the “war on poverty” in 1964, the federal government has spent nearly $15 trillion in welfare. This year alone, 2012, the federal government will spend more than $668 billion to fight poverty. Yet, the poverty rate in the United States has not gone down.
In his 1988 State of the Union address, President Ronald Reagan remarked, that “the Federal Government declared war on poverty, and poverty won…The Federal Government…spends more than $100 billion a year on [programs for the poor]. What has all this money done? Well, too often it has only made poverty harder to escape. Federal welfare programs have created a massive social problem... Dependency has become the one enduring heirloom, passed from one generation to the next, of too many fragmented families.”
According to figures
released by the United States Census Bureau
, California has the highest poverty rate of any state at 23.5 percent. Close behind is the District of Columbia at 23.2 percent. And, then, Florida at 19.5 percent. Today, 16 percent of Americans live at or below the poverty line. With poverty nearing its highest rate since 1965, President Reagan may have been right. Poverty won the war.
Yet, in the recent campaign for the White House, while candidates battled to win-over the middle class, they spoke little of the increased poverty facing our nation. Both President Obama and Governor Romney adopted a household income of $250,000 as defining the middle class. President Obama promised not to raise taxes on the middle class. Mitt Romney made the same promise. For both candidates, it was the same campaign mantra: “America thrives when the middle class thrives.” Unfortunately, amid the battle cries to win votes, the voice of the poor was lost.
But, the poor cannot be ignored. With over 49 million Americans living in poverty, the poor are on our streets and at our doorsteps. With unemployment rising and the cost of living increasing, more and more families go without necessities. No health care. No child care. Not even enough food to eat. The demand for food at food pantries is reaching all time highs. Our own Father English Community Center in
is serving upward of 5,000 families a month.
The poor are not mere statistics. They are a single mother working to provide for her children; a father who is jobless; a child going to bed hungry; the sick without medical care, and the homeless without shelter. Their needs will never be fully met by our federal government but by individuals who cannot remain comfortable while their brothers and sisters are in need.
Our charity moves us to take care, as best we can, of the basic necessities of the poor. Soup kitchens, food donations, clothing donations and money meet the immediate needs of the poor. But this is not enough. Justice demands that we work to correct the inequities that condemn others to poverty. If we care for the poor, we will work to put in place fair policies and programs that truly help them help themselves.
The poor have a face and a heart. Thus, compassion for the poor must be personal, not simply bureaucratic. What does the birth of the Child born in Bethlehem to parents seeking shelter from others mean for us? Does it not mean that the journey to the manger is as close as our outreach to the poor person nearest to us? Is this not a journey that we make, not just at Christmas, but each day of the New Year?