About 30 years ago, when I was a young reporter in Washington, a colleague inquired about my background. Being from Mississippi can be a surefire conversation starter. Among peers with wealthy to middle class families and sensibilities, most of whom were graduates of Ivy League colleges, I came from poverty — the rural kind most of my friends would have seen only in documentaries or big-screen dramas starring Sissy Spacek or Oprah Winfrey.
Upon hearing a brief history, he replied with knowing fascination: “You could have become a statistic.”
As it turns out, I did. I am one of millions of people quietly plucked from the battlefield in the nation’s War on Poverty, an infinitesimal mark in the success column of public policy that, 50 years later, remains the subject of ferocious debate. In fact, the War on Poverty, which President Lyndon B. Johnson declared in January 1964 in his first State of the Union address, redefined the national conversation about what it means to be poor, and it set in motion the ongoing political argument over the size and role of government.
Fifty years ago, the nation looked different, so did poverty. Much of the nation was segregated, and conditions for the poorest, white and black, rivaled anything Dickens wrote about. Listless children with distended bellies and sores that would not heal, dying of malnutrition; poor educational opportunities, nonexistent medical care, poor sanitation, joblessness. That’s what Robert Kennedy found in 1967 when he visited the Mississippi Delta. A 1968 trip to Appalachia revealed similar hopelessness.
Poverty and civil rights were linked. After Johnson and Martin Luther King secured the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, King began his Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. It was the unfinished business he left behind.
In 1962, two years before Johnson declared his War on Poverty, I was born in the colored section of the local clinic in Eupora, Miss. As my mother sometimes pointed out, as the youngest of six, I was lucky. Unlike my siblings, I was born in a medical facility, and I never picked cotton to help support the family.
For most of my childhood, our home, a small, clean concrete block house, had no hot running water or indoor toilet. I knew what hunger felt like and hard work looked like.
I grew up helping my mother coax a year’s worth of vegetables from a truck garden to feed us, a stay-at-home job she supplemented with maid’s work. My older brothers, who never attended an integrated school, worked after school mopping floors at the county hospital. As fear of the draft hung over the country, another volunteered for service in the Marine Corps. I was not to experience equal education until 1970, when schools were integrated.
Yet, we were fortunate. We owned some land and lived in a community where people helped each other. My story is hardly unique.
Congress acted, and Johnson signed four bills into law, creating Medicare and Medicaid, and expanding Social Security benefits for retirees, widows, the disabled and college-age students. The food-stamp program, then a pilot, was made permanent. The centerpiece of the War on Poverty, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, established a list of initiatives, including the Job Corps, the federal work-study program and Head Start. The Title I program subsidizing school districts with large numbers of poor students was established under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, recently reauthorized under No Child Left Behind.
According to a new study by Columbia University economists, poverty was about 26 percent in 1967, compared with 16 percent in 2012, on the heels of the Great Recession. This figure and other estimates, depending on the source, have led many critics to conclude that the programs of the Great Society were a failure.
The question is, Where would we be without them? Gone is the specter of American children dying of malnutrition. While new and creative ideas are needed to help the growing number of poor families, arguably without these programs, the Great Recession would have been far worse. Finally, many of us who live quietly among our neighbors, our colleagues or compatriots in the school pickup line are the former poor. The contributions we make, the lives we live were, in part, made possible by an investment of taxpayer dollars and national conscience.
In September 1967, at the age of 5, I was enrolled in a new program called Head Start. The certificate of completion I received in August 1968, just months after the death of Martin Luther King, bears the mechanically reproduced signatures of Honorary Chairman Lady Bird Johnson and Sargent Shriver, director of the Office of Economic Opportunity.
Years later, my first job, a summer job registering vehicles at the county courthouse, was courtesy of CETA, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. Social Security benefits supplemented academic scholarships and college work study.
All this set me and many others on a path to independence and the ultimate goal of government intervention — return on investment. The CETA job helped pay for my ’74 Vega, which took me to college — we didn't own a car. After graduating from Ole Miss, I became a reporter and columnist for respected newspapers and magazines, and later a marketing and communications consultant.
Yet, what roils critics, and even troubles proponents, are not the successes, but the “failures,” people perpetually mired in poverty who need federal and state assistance to survive. The reality is that under the best of circumstances, some of us will not make it for a host of reasons. That was true after the Great Depression, true after the programs of the War on Poverty were enacted, true today.
This is not to say that as taxpayers we abdicate our responsibility to the republic. Yet when we enact anti-poverty policies, then undo them with poor economic policy, what does that say about our priorities, the degree of our intent?
What ultimately is a life — millions of lives — worth, not just to the individual, but to the present and the future of the nation? Can we fathom the amount saved for generations to come, the impact on schools, neighborhoods, cities and states? On the national psyche?
What is the return on that?
Kitty Dumas, a communications consultant, writer and columnist, lives in Miami.