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Editorial: War on poverty must continue

For 50 years, the U.S. has been in a state of war ... but not the sort of conflict where battles are fought that capture the public’s attention, or where a decisive moment was reached and the war lost or won.

That’s because of the opponent and nature of this particular conflict.

U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty” in his State of the Union address 50 years ago. In informing the country of this situation, he warned that “It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won.

“The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”

During the half-century since, the war and its strategy have been a hot topic of debate. They’ve been fodder for debates among lawmakers, academics and think tanks, particularly on the question of whether these government anti-poverty programs have helped or hindered the poor. Today, a number of critics of the anti-poverty efforts set in motion by LBJ — and the taxpayer money used to fund them — want to declare that America has been defeated.

Not so fast, folks. It’s much more complicated than that.

For one thing, the conditions of poverty and the description of the poor have changed. For example, the number of elderly Americans, 65 and over, who are considered poor has been cut — considerably. In 2012, there were 1.2 million fewer elderly poor than in 1966, despite the doubling of the total elderly population. And while childhood poverty has had a number of different swings, overall the percentage remains below what the number was in, say, 1959.

On the other hand, the overall picture hasn’t budged all that much.

“Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty,” Johnson said in that landmark speech, “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.”

Many of those root causes remain too much a factor now ... and that means the nation must renew its effort in this war. We must determine what strategies have made a difference and renew our efforts in those areas, and abandon discredited programs.

It’s still a fight, as Johnson said, that requires better schools, health care and employment opportunities.

We’ll never completely rout our enemy, but we still have the means to change the tide of this war.

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