Recapture the Future LBJ Saw for America
Articles | Columnist

Jesse Jackson

Recapture the Future LBJ Saw for America
By Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.

( - Poverty is spreading in America. The numbers are numbing: Forty-six million people in poverty, a record number, one out of every seven Americans. Nearly 50 million go without health insurance. There are fewer payroll jobs now than in 2000. The income of a typical household is down nearly 7 percent since 2007. And the number of working poor is skyrocketing, as good jobs get shipped abroad. About 40 percent of all the jobs in the U.S. are low-income jobs.

And inequality has reached new extremes. According to Goldman Sachs, the richest 1 percent of the country earned as much last year as the bottom 60 percent put together, and had as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. For more than three decades, the U.S. has put faith in a market fundamentalism, lowering taxes on the top end, deregulating finance, touting the benefits of corporate defined trade, all in the belief that the money would trickle down. But the money isn’t circulating; it is congealing at the very top.

This has fostered not simply what economists are starting to call the “Lesser Depression,” but also a depression of spirit and hope. Conservatives tell us that we are on our own. Public action is scorned. Washington is gridlocked. Even a badly needed jobs program is called dead on arrival.

This reflects, in my view, more than three decades of consistent denigration of government. Government is the problem, not the solution, Reagan taught. Then, by cutting spending and capacity, by starving regulatory agencies, by opening the floodgates to big money politics and corporate lobbying, he and his successors helped make that gibe close to a reality.

Consider the last time we acted to reduce poverty with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the War on Poverty. Most people have been taught that the war on poverty failed, but that is simply a lie. In fact, from 1963 when Johnson took office until 1970 as his Great Society programs were in place, America went from having 22 percent of the population below the poverty line to 12 percent — the most dramatic decline of poverty in the century.

Johnson did this by summoning the nation to a moral calling. He traveled to Ohio University to provide his vision of the Great Society. “Our challenge,” he said, “not tomorrow but today, is to accomplish objectives which have eluded mankind since the beginning of time. We must bring equal justice to all our citizens. We must abolish human poverty. We must eradicate killing and crippling disease. . . . We must eliminate illiteracy among all our people. We must end open bias and active bigotry and, above all else, we must help to bring about a day ‘when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.’ ”

He accompanied his soaring words with action. Medicare and Medicaid are his legacy. A dramatic boost of Social Security and increase in the minimum wage lifted millions out of poverty. Head Start, summer youth programs, college work-study and scholarship programs enlisted the young. The Job Corps, Vista, Community Action Agencies, Upward Bound hit pockets of poverty. Food stamps and the school breakfast program dramatically reduced hunger. Johnson was the great education president and the greatest conservationist. He ushered the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts into law.

This was optimistic, activist government, and it made a profound difference. The War on Poverty was winning in rural Appalachia and urban America. It was lost only in the jungles of Vietnam. That was Johnson’s tragedy and our own. A generation grew suspicious of government. Conservative ideas and big money came to dominate our politics.

The result: record numbers of Americans in poverty, a sinking middle class and soaring wealth for the very few.

We need to change course. We should recapture the enthusiasm and the moral courage that Johnson once summoned from a young generation. Dr. King had a dream of freedom and justice; Lyndon Johnson had a dream of equality. LBJ knew that freedom without equality and justice would ring hollow. LBJ brought about legislation, new laws and the funding to make the dream a reality. Today, Democrats must see LBJ, the transformer, as a frame of reference for hope that will live long into the future.

We have the power to end poverty and malnutrition now. Ending poverty is good for our health, and it fortifies our character. This is America. We cannot surrender its dream without a fight.

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Last Updated ( Sunday, 09 October 2011 03:10 )
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