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The Legacy of the War on Poverty

But if the War on Poverty means anything, it is a statement that we must look, not just to the poor—but to the whole cloth too—and even to the loom. The whole fabric of our society must be rewoven, and the patterns we must weave are patterns of justice, opportunity, dignity, and mutual respect.

Sargent Shriver

The Legacy of the War on Poverty

January 8, 2014, marks the 50th anniversary of the Johnson Administration’s War on Poverty. Leading the effort, the late Sargent Shriver launched such landmark programs as Head Start, Job Corps, VISTA, Community Action Program, and Legal Services for the Poor. Within a decade, the country’s poverty rate had decreased from 19 percent to 11 percent.

Sargent Shriver and President Lyndon B. JohnsonCentral to Sargent Shriver’s vision for the War on Poverty was the empowerment of low-income people to address the conditions that keep them in poverty.

This vision guided him in advancing a model of “workable justice,” in which federally funded legal services for the poor were located within Community Action agencies. There, legal aid attorneys could provide professional expertise and advocacy capacity, with the goal of empowering communities to address the larger policy and systemic changes needed to advance social and economic justice. 

In recent years, the poverty ranks have swelled to 46 million people, almost 1 in 6 Americans.  More reprehensible, one-fifth of all children (22%) live in poverty. As people have lost jobs and homes, the line between those in the middle class and those in poverty has blurred. The recent recession and rising income inequality has been a sobering reminder that poverty in 2014 isn’t just someone else’s problem. It’s everyone’s problem – a problem that tears at the fabric of our society.

Some argue that a 15% poverty rate means the War on Poverty and its safety net programs have failed. This interpretation is shortsighted: absent anti-poverty programs, the poverty rate would be 29 percent. Nonetheless, poverty is still powerfully with us; some faces are old and some are new. 

At the Shriver Center we understand that fighting poverty requires constant vigilance as well as continued innovation that responds to the ebbs and flows of national politics and the economy. We forge on in spirit of Shriver’s vision for eradicating poverty—one in which legal advocates partner with communities to create “workable justice.” We remain committed  both to our own legal advocacy, and also to training and supporting advocates to engage in the kind of community-focused lawyering that was crucial to the early successes of the War on Poverty and that enhances the ability of marginalized communities to build and harness their power to be “players” in key public policy debates.

Throughout the year, the Shriver Center will commemorate the anniversary of the War on Poverty with essays, features, and other content highlighting how far we have come and where we go from here. Sign up for one of our email newsletters as well as the Shriver Brief to stay educated on anti-poverty issues and make a difference in your community. Join us on Twitter and follow the hashtag #WarOnPoverty to stay up to date on important anti-poverty issues related to the 50th Anniversary on the War on Poverty. 

In the words of the Shriver Center’s President John Bouman, “at this 50th anniversary of the declaration of the War on Poverty, there are signs that if America’s leaders take on poverty by name, the country itself may be ready to take large scale action against poverty. . . . We should make this a time that will have its own anniversary 50 years from now as a watershed in the successful fight against poverty.” Join us as we weave patterns of justice, opportunity, dignity and respect.

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