This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.  I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.

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.  One thousand dollars invested in salvaging an unemployable youth today can return $40,000 or more in his lifetime.

Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support.  But this attack, to be effective, must also be organized at the State and the local level and must be supported and directed by State and local efforts.

For the war against poverty will not be won here in Washington.  It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House.

Fifty years ago this month, President Lyndon B. Johnson uttered one of the greatest verbal challenges ever to confront American legislators.  And in case anyone wondered as to the veracity of his claim, Johnson termed it as a “war,” and he began the process of placing the nation on a war footing of moral commitment to the tens of millions trapped in the confines of poverty.

Was that war won?  The answer is clearly “no.”  On the other hand, significant numbers of Americans were raised from poverty’s clutches in order to embrace a more prosperous life.  The legislation and societal commitment was as immense as anything the country had ever witnessed and that kind of investment was bound to have some positive effect.

Perhaps it would be better to frame it this way: What if Johnson had never mobilized the levers of power and economy as he did?  Martha Burk, of the National Council of Women’s Organizations, recently talked about a Columbia University study that showed that the 19% poverty rate at the time of the announcement would have risen to a staggering 31% if Johnson hadn’t acted.  Burk then went on to highlight an ugly truth: “As a country, we’re getting stingier, not more generous with the poor – who, by the way, are mostly women and kids … All this adds up to a war on the poor instead of a war on poverty.  Where is L.B.J. when we need him?”

Indeed.  Where are those imaginative leaders who would take encroaching poverty seriously enough to wage a major fight against it?  When will they help us to understand that the poor are among us, not sequestered in certain areas, but living on our streets?  Their kids play with our kids.  The new face of poverty is that of the working poor, with men and women employed full-time for wages that can’t sustain a basic living. 

Today, everything is about the war over the middle-class and which party will capture enough of it to gain government.  But the closer we get to elections, the nearer we will get to fighting over poverty as opposed to tackling it outright.  Each party will have its own idea and seek to overcome the others with it.  But this is about us – all of us.  It’s about our political class laying out a strategy for closing the gap between the rich and poor, for eliminating child and senior poverty, and for resourcing our communities to fight on the home front, where we live, and where our citizens struggle.  And then it must be about those parties coming together in consensus to pass the legislation necessary to turn the tide.  It will involve innovation and social enterprise, a community sense of justice and a national sense of purpose.  And it will take governments to acknowledge the reality that poverty is a national shame, especially as it increases.

Please take the six minutes to watch Lyndon Johnson’s speech to Congress here on his intention to fight poverty at every level.  He doesn’t talk about Democrats doing it, but both parties and all of Congress.  He speaks personally but then talks about having the privilege of power to fight a national scourge.  Yes, people were more trusting of their governments then, but the only way to win that trust back if you are the political class is to dream like this again, and challenge each and every one of us to fight for our fellow citizens to have a fair shot at peace and prosperity.

The war on poverty was never won – in the U.S. or Canada.  But progress was made.  Now those advances are falling back into decline.  We need women and men in leadership to help us dream of an equitable society once again.  Should they choose not to lead in this war, it will only continue on another level and will result in the dislocation of our communities. Presently, the poor among us are locked in place, unable to improve their situation because of these swirling times of economic change and our inability to come together as a society to dream once more.  War or stuck in place – the choice remains ours.