Fifty years and counting

Jeane Anastas, Ph.D., LMSWThe last two years I have had the privilege of bringing a group of MSW students to Washington, D.C., in January to learn about social policy issues, the Social Work Reinvestment Act and the Social Work Caucus, and to meet with their congressional representatives to advocate for the profession and the people we serve.

It happens we were in Washington on Jan. 8, the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s State of the Union address in which he announced the War on Poverty. That week there were articles in major newspapers reflecting on that history. Many of these stories quoted Johnson’s comment that the poor were living “on the margins of hope” and emphasized his belief that addressing the problem of poverty was necessary to achieve a great society.

These reflections on the past were accompanied by serious talk about our current unacceptable levels of income inequality and even about legislation to raise the federal minimum wage.

Many of the programs launched 50 years ago are now well-accepted parts of the fabric of American life. Medicare, a government-run health insurance program for the elderly and the disabled, is very popular and very efficient, with administrative costs that run at about 3 percent. Currently, more than 49 million people are enrolled in Medicare.

Medicaid, the health insurance program serving the poor and which is funded by the federal government in partnership with the states, has recently been expanded in many states as part of the Affordable Care Act; it also dates back to the War on Poverty initiative.

Head Start, once only an eight-week summer program, is now providing education and care to low-income children year-round. It serves more than 1 million children annually, although it reached only about 40 percent of those eligible simply because there is not enough program capacity to reach all the low-income children who could benefit.

Today’s neuroscience research on the importance of supporting children’s brain development in years 0 to 5 makes Head Start and Early Head Start, which came later, look visionary.

The percentage of people in the United States living in poverty has declined in the past 50 years to about 15 percent, but this still means that almost one in every seven Americans is poor. Fifty years ago the elderly were the group with the highest poverty rate; now it is children, with one in five children nationally living below the poverty line.

On Jan. 8, the chairwoman of the Social Work Caucus, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), launched a “50 for 50” initiative in which Democratic House members have been speaking on the floor of the House, one a day, about what is needed now to address this problem.

We in social work salute our legislative leaders who are taking the next steps toward eliminating poverty, especially child poverty, now.