Fifty years ago this month, in his first State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty in America.” Johnson urged Congress and the American people to join him in the struggle against poverty; it was a struggle, he said, we could “not afford to lose.” Johnson understood that to improve the condition of the destitute, we had to attack the root causes of poverty, and not merely its symptoms.

In the years that followed, Johnson’s administration launched a volley of programs, many of which are still with us today, to offer the poor better education, better healthcare, better jobs, and better homes. They included Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start, better funding for K-12 education, loans to low-income college students, housing assistance for low-income families, and legal aid for the poor. Under Johnson, the food stamp pilot project became a permanent program that would eventually eliminate severe malnutrition, which, in the early 60s, made parts of the US seem as if they were in a Third World country.

Nevertheless, in politics as in physics, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and it did not take long before the Right was denouncing the war on poverty as a failure. President Reagan led the way with his famous dictum, “We fought a war on poverty and poverty won.” This idea has been reiterated umpteen times down the decades, embellished with accounts of Cadillac-driving welfare queens, unemployed gourmets, and surfers collecting food stamps. If people remain poor, we’re told, that’s because assistance programs make life too cushy for them. The best way to help them escape the trap of poverty is thus to shrink or abolish the programs designed for their benefit. The result, since the 1980s, has been a cutback in public spending, and today the axe hangs over several critical programs, including food stamps.

But while it’s easy enough to propagate myths as gospel truth, the facts speak clearly enough for themselves. While there have no doubt been abuses of government programs, the evidence shows that these programs work. Between 1967 and 2012, they helped lower the overall poverty rate from 26% to 16%, and child poverty from 29% to 19%. According to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, today’s safety net lifts 41 million people, including 9 million children, above the poverty line. In 2011 alone, food stamps kept 4.7 million Americans, including 2.1 million children, out of poverty.

However, despite undeniable progress, poverty in the US is still rampant. In 2012, almost 50 million people were counted as poor, with 16 million “extremely poor” living below half the poverty line. These figures remind us that we still have far to go to make this country a haven of social and economic justice. The deficit hawks lament that we can’t afford to spend on programs that assist the poor, but the truth is that our ability to fight poverty is not stymied by a shortage of funds but by policies and laws that benefit the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. Over the past half-century, the share of the nation’s wealth going to the top 1% of households has more than doubled. Between 2009 and 2010, 93% of all new income generated went to the top 1%; only 7%, crumbs off the table, went to the remaining 99%. While the incomes of the rich have soared, fast food and service sector workers are paid minimum wages, with no extra benefits. Often they’re forced to work two jobs just to support their families, and an illness in the household can be a financial catastrophe.

We have the resources to overcome poverty. The big question, as always, is whether we have the will to do so. Looking at the persistence of poverty from a Buddhist perspective, we can detect beneath the policy debates a contest between two contrary conceptions of human nature, each entailing a distinct moral vision. One sees people as essentially separate, responsible only for their personal interests and their narrow circle of family and friends. From this perspective, we are all locked into unavoidable competition against one another for the good things of life, and the best way to ensure our success is to enhance our power and influence to shape public policy to our advantage. This point of view sees the poor as failures, as castoffs who must patiently endure their pitiable fate. We’re entitled to help them, of course, but our help should be considered an act of private charity, not a plank of policy—and, therefore, not our collective responsibility.

The other viewpoint—one commensurate with a Buddhist vision—sees people as responsible for one another; indeed, from the highest standpoint, it sees that people are one another, interdependent and mutually sustaining, each in all and all in each. From this perspective, we see others not as obstacles to our own success, nor as mere means to our own advancement, but as ends in themselves, and as meriting a fair chance to develop their own capacities to the fullest. While there are inevitable limits to our personal ability to help everyone in need, we are each obliged to make some contribution to the well-being of the nation to which we belong and the communities in which we participate. This obligation is not merely personal. It extends to our collective voice, the state, which, as the organ of national policy, must endeavor to see that no one lacks the basic amenities of a decent life.

In this vision, poverty reflects negatively not only on those it affects but on our social order, our nation, and even ourselves—on each of us individually and collectively. If some in our midst are poor, faced with a daily struggle to pay for food, rent, and medical bills, that is in part because I, too, am poor—insufficiently endowed with the love, compassion, and sense of justice that might motivate me to redress their poverty. But we can act together, and we do so by enacting programs and policies that will improve the lot of those who can’t help themselves. We do so from a deep conviction that every human person possesses intrinsic dignity and must be given an opportunity to realize that dignity. And we do so, too, from the faith that when people are shown respect, they will reciprocate by acting responsibly from a place of inner dignity.

Poverty still persists today because we have lost the moral perspective as the polestar of public policy. Instead we follow the law of the jungle, content to abandon the poor to their own devices, demanding that they marshal resources they simply do not possess. And the reason we have moved in this direction, drifting away from the high ideals of the Great Society era, is because the vision and values of corporate capitalism have gained ascendency over those of human solidarity and mutual responsibility. To eliminate poverty, this trend must be reversed. The individualistic vision must give way to one that stresses our essential unity; competition must be balanced by mutual assistance and respect.

More than the elimination of poverty depends on this. In the long run, it may indeed be the necessary condition for saving civilization itself.


Further Reading: Preserving the Fecundity of the Earth | A Moral Politics: Nourishing change in US food policy | Into the Fire: Food in the Age of Climate Change | The Attack at Home: A new bill threatens the food security of millions

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