Maine Voices: Preble Street far from ready to declare victory in the war on poverty

PORTLAND – Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s seminal "War on Poverty" remarks in his State of the Union address.

Inspired by the civil rights movement, galvanized by the assassination of President Kennedy, LBJ’s words were passionate, lofty and aspirational. The War on Poverty, he said, "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."

Fifty years later these words still resonate, still remain relevant.

There is no dearth of opinions and analysis of whether this war has been won. Pundits from both the left and the right produce an abundance of evidence that charts our nation’s progress in alleviating poverty. Even the most strident from either political wing, however, recognize that some progress has been made.

The poverty rate for seniors has decreased from 35 percent in 1959 to 9 percent today. Head Start for children has been widely credited with long-term benefits for participants, including higher rates of college attendance and increased lifetime earning power, ending generational poverty in measures previously unknown.

Federal nutrition programs such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) have lowered rates of hunger and food insecurity. By including this benefit as income, 4 million families rose above the poverty line in 2012 alone.

Nonetheless, even with these and other successes, our country still faces enormous challenges in realizing LBJ’s vision of ending poverty.

Minimum wage is half that of a living wage. Health care costs continue to climb. A quarter of Americans report financial hardship because of medical bills, and 58 percent report forgoing or delaying medical care in the past year because of a lack of financial resources.

Student debt burdens 39 million Americans, totaling $1.1 trillion in outstanding student loans, stirring the debate over comprehensive student loan reform.

Affordable housing is becoming a distant memory as market rents increase, 30-year mortgages no longer meet homeowner demand and subsidized housing waiting lists are at least a half a decade long.

The hunger crisis is increasing by the growing disparity between wages and costs and simultaneous cuts to the best defense against hunger: food stamps.

At the local level, in urban areas we’re seeing long lines stretching out the doors of soup kitchens and food pantries. And in rural Maine, the more hidden effects of poverty devastate small towns and farming communities.

Homelessness in this state increased by 26 percent in the past year, with hundreds of men, women and families sleeping each night in a shelter bed, on a mat on the floor, in a tent, in a car, or forced to make unsafe decisions for shelter.

Preble Street is committed to doing all it can on the front line of this continued war on poverty. Taking a note from LBJ, Preble Street continually seeks new and creative approaches to ending poverty.

• Our Veterans Housing Services are expanding to Lewiston and Bangor.

• The Maine Hunger Initiative assisted in providing 45,000 meals this past summer all over Maine to children who receive free or reduced-price meals throughout the school year.

• Our employment services seek to build new partnerships with expanding markets like the booming hotel business in Portland.

• With private foundation support, we’ll soon be opening a new Transitional Living Program for homeless and runaway youth who are entering adulthood.

• And we are working hard to replicate the success of the "housing first" model of Logan Place and Florence House.

The sense of urgency we feel at Preble Street needs to proliferate exponentially. We need to enlist anyone and everyone to help us do more: Housing for fragile and elderly homeless individuals, veterans housing and recovery homes are all on our agenda. We know that safe, dignified and truly affordable homes end homelessness.

We need an outburst of compassion, of economic fairness, of human kindness. The entire community needs to recognize its neighbors with generosity and tolerance, to play a role in promoting the well-being of all our children, elders and families.

Many, many other agencies, coalitions, faith groups and concerned individuals are doing what they can for reasons that are moral, economic, social, political. To protect basic human rights, we need all the help we can get from everyone. President Johnson’s call to end poverty 50 years ago still inspires us. We shall not rest.


Mark R. Swann is executive director and Amy Gallant is advocacy coordinator at Preble Street in Portland.

– Special to the Press Herald