This month marks 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson declared a "war on poverty." There were huge victories in that war during the following decade, but after that, the federal government reversed course, cut anti-poverty programs, and our national government effectively surrendered.
A half century later, as Minnesota and the nation pull out of the recession, some families are doing better economically, and some are doing incredibly well. Yet there are working people and their families staying in homeless shelters because they cannot afford housing. Countless people with mental health or physical health challenges cannot get even basic care. As many as one in three children are growing up in families that cannot afford basic needs.
Children raised in poverty are stripped of the opportunity we want for all young people – they are more likely to suffer from asthma and other health problems, their brain development and academic potential is compromised. Some overcome the odds and succeed, but many more do not.
We are not proud of this. Sometimes we'd rather just ignore this ugly reality. But despite the federal government's long-ago surrender in the war on poverty, people haven't stopped caring, and many community and religious leaders continue pushing to end poverty. About 10 years ago, some Minnesota faith leaders drafted a "Common Foundation" which stated,
"We believe it is the Creator's intent that all people are provided those things that protect human dignity and make for healthy life: adequate food and shelter, meaningful work, safe communities, healthcare, and education.... We are all called to work to overcome poverty, and this work transcends any particular political theory or party and any particular economic theory or structure."
Minnesota, through its legislature, took up the cause in 2008 with a bipartisan commission to map a route to end poverty. Recognizing it is not something we can change overnight, the commission's charge – reflected in its name – was the "Legislative Commission to End Poverty in Minnesota by 2020."
2014 marks the half-way point to the target date for accomplishing the goal. In 2008, one in ten Minnesotans lived in poverty. Now, it is slightly worse, and for some populations, much worse – almost half of African American children live in poverty.
Fortunately, there appears to be new momentum. Last year, the state began addressing early childhood education needs. In 2014, it looks like the legislature will significantly increase the minimum wage. And the Dayton administration recently spelled out a bold plan to prevent and end homelessness in Minnesota.
But even if we get a phased-in hike in the minimum wage to $9.50/hour, that's not enough to live on. Many low income parents work at two, or even three, jobs to make ends meet. And, even if we do end homelessness, we must ensure that health care, and childcare, and food, and other necessities are affordable.
The challenge is great, but 50 years after our nation declared war on poverty, there are signs of hope. Pope Francis has been outspoken about the moral obligation to end poverty, "A way has to be found to enable everyone to benefit from the fruits of the earth, and not simply to close the gap between the affluent and those who must be satisfied with the crumbs falling from the table, but above all to satisfy the demands of justice, fairness and respect for every human being."
There has been a positive, bipartisan response. Even Newt Gingrich has taken note of the problem of income inequality, calling on fellow politicians to "embrace the pope's core critique that you do not want to live on a planet with billionaires and people who do not have any food."
Most of us recognize that poverty is morally unacceptable; many also understand ignoring the problem hurts our economy. We can use 2014, the halfway point in Minnesota's timeline, to recommit our state to building an economy that doesn't leave people behind, and doesn't rob so many children of their potential.
It's an ambitious agenda – providing living wage jobs, increasing the earned income tax credit, strengthening the childcare assistance program, delivering health care for all – but the well-being of all
Minnesotans matters. Paul Wellstone was right: "We all do better, when we all do better."