The greatest war in American history turns 50 today. That’s the War on Poverty.
Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, Members of the House and Senate, my fellow Americans:
I will be brief, for our time is necessarily short and our agenda is already long.
Last year’s congressional session was the longest in peacetime history. With that foundation, let us work together to make this year’s session the best in the Nation’s history.
Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined; as the session which enacted the most far-reaching tax cut of our time; as the session which declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States; as the session which finally recognized the health needs of all our older citizens; as the session which reformed our tangled transportation and transit policies; as the session which achieved the most effective, efficient foreign aid program ever; and as the session which helped to build more homes, more schools, more libraries, and more hospitals than any single session of Congress in the history of our Republic.
All this and more can and must be done. It can be done by this summer, and it can be done without any increase in spending. In fact, under the budget that I shall shortly submit, it can be done with an actual reduction in Federal expenditures and Federal employment.
We have in 1964 a unique opportunity and obligation–to prove the success of our system; to disprove those cynics and critics at home and abroad who question our purpose and our competence.
If we fail, if we fritter and fumble away our opportunity in needless, senseless quarrels between Democrats and Republicans, or between the House and the Senate, or between the South and North, or between the Congress and the administration, then history will rightfully judge us harshly. But if we succeed, if we can achieve these goals by forging in this country a greater sense of union, then, and only then, can we take full satisfaction in the State of the Union.
While Johnson’s Great Society was not perfect, it was a brave and noble attempt to fight entrenched poverty in the world’s largest economic power. But largely today, we’d have to call this war lost. The New Gilded Age is by definition a resounding defeat of the War on Poverty by the plutocrats and the shareholders, with quarterly reports meaning more than childhood nutrition and end of the year Wall Street bonuses a higher priority than homelessness, racial equality, or education. Capital mobility is the weapon of the rich, undermining the job security necessary for people to make demands on corporations and making politicians desperate for the good will of corporate leaders for both campaign donations and jobs for their constituents.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t take LBJ as an inspiration and fight a new war on poverty, one that is increasingly needed a nation defined by enormous income inequality, long-term unemployment, and devastating debt loads.