Wednesday, January 8th; Rally for New War on Poverty, Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, 4515 Superior Avenue: Poverty Warrior Rowena Ventura with Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry’s Advocacy Director Reverend Tony Minor. Ventura rose from a coffin symbolizing the resurrection of the War on Poverty.
Activists call for new War on Poverty
by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, February 2014) To commemorate the 50th Anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson declaration of “unconditional war on poverty” in his January 1964 State of the Union Address, a number of local organizations held a rally at the Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry’s offices at 4515 Superior on January 8th to call for a new national War on Poverty. Organizations sponsoring the rally included: United Clevelanders Against Poverty, Organize! Ohio, Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, and Cleveland Jobs With Justice.
In an address to the rally, Reverend Tony Minor, Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry Advocacy Director, noted the early successes of the War on Poverty such as reducing the child poverty rate from 25% in 1963 to 15% between 1967 and 1975. Minor spelled out reductions in poverty among senior citizens, increased access to health care for poor Americans, and substantial reduction in the nation’s infant mortality rate that resulted from the War on Poverty.
Minor noted the War on Poverty was a bi-partisan effort from which emerged increases in Social Security benefits, increases in food stamps, creation of nutritional programs for the elderly, development of Head Start, Upward Bound, Job Corps and work study programs to support college students.
Despite the gains in quality of life for many Americans as a result of the War on Poverty programs – Minor believes “a new era of thinking emerged about the role of government beginning with Nixon and hitting its apex under Reagan,” eroded the momentum that was reducing the percentage of people living in poverty. Minor recalled that Reagan declared the War on Poverty to be over and famously stated, “Government is not a solution to our problems; government is the problem.” Minor says that philosophy resulted in “a full retreat from the programs that began under Johnson.”
Despite the rollback of programs, Minor noted a Columbia University study where economists used the Supplemental Poverty Measure to assert that the United States poverty rate adjusted for inflation has fallen from “26% in 1967 to 16% today.”
In urging a new battle for progressive change, Minor says, “The battle today is not simply one of poverty, but it also includes income equality and equity.” He urged the creation of a “new rhetoric that invites and transforms a disinterested population to see the economic value of expanding the table and sharing the wealth.”
In this battle for a more equitable future for America, Minor says, “We must inspire a new cadre of young leaders and let them lead with new and fresh approaches.”
Minor finished his remarks saying, “I believe deeply that all Americans should have and must have equal access and equal opportunity. If democracy and equality are real and true qualities, then it must not be shallow economically but contain the means for all Americans to have a fruitful and prosperous life. Without such, it is a dream or even a lie. It is like having the right to stand before a door but not given the strength or capacity to open it and walk through.”
Following Minor’s remarks, Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry President and CEO Andrew Genszler spoke about convening a poverty conference later this year. He picked up on Minor’s call to create a new cadre of young leaders, and called upon the young VISTA volunteers and staff involved in LMM programs to bring new ideas and vision to the table.
Larry Bresler of Organize! Ohio noted the dismantling of the poverty programs that began under President Reagan and continues to this day. He said since the time of Reagan, presidents have not talked about ending poverty. Left out of the public dialogue, Bresler said the poor have been excluded from society and are being denied their rights as citizens.
John Hairston Jr., District Director for Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, talked about the Congressional Black Caucus’ efforts to create programs that “lift people up and out of poverty.” He said one proposal is to devote 10% of all new government revenue to the poorest 20% of communities in the country. He spoke of the importance of removing obstacles to the success of students and to re-examining policies that contribute to a growing income gap. Hairston called ending poverty “a civil rights battle.” Hairston promised that the Congressional Black Caucus, which Congresswoman Fudge chairs, “will not rest until there is progress on these issues.”
Diana King, Chair of Northern Ohioans for Budget Legislation Equality and a member of United Clevelanders Against Poverty talked about the plight of families doing volunteer work to continue to receive public assistance, yet not getting assistance to work toward a college degree or training for the skills to obtain meaningful employment. She said her family volunteers 50 hours a week to keep from losing $434 in benefits. She said on a per hour basis it amounts to $1.97 per hour. While the volunteer work consumes many hours, it does not offer the skill training or education needed to secure a quality job. King said, in Cuyahoga County there are 900 families per caseworker. She says the Department of Jobs and Family services often cuts people off their benefits for minor infractions. King pointed out that by shredding the safety net – cutting people off from benefits – increases the poverty level by depriving them of the time and resources to take steps to improve their future prospects.
Debbie Klein of Cleveland Jobs With Justice called for raising the minimum wage to a living wage. She said by raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour five million people would immediately be taken out of poverty.
Reverend Aaron Phillips, a pastor and member of Common Good Ohio, called for an end to the “War on the Poor.” He called on companies such as Walmart to pay a fair wage. He called for equal educational opportunity and an end to policies that take away from providing quality public education for all. He said, “You should not have to live in a rich suburb or be able to pay tuition to Catholic schools to get a quality education.”
In a call for action, Phillips said poor people should have a clear pathway out of poverty for those willing to take it. He called for equal opportunity for residents living in Riverview and Lakeview on W. 25th Street or Garden Valley on the East Side.
Retired Cleveland teacher Meryl Johnson equated reducing poverty with increased educational attainment, saying, “Raise the minimum wage, and test scores will go up.”
Local Economist George Zeller said, “Poverty is up in this region this year.” He noted that the five county region that includes Cleveland in November of 2013, for the seventh month in a row, lost more jobs than any other major metropolitan area in the country. “This region is bleeding jobs. The only way out of poverty is to create jobs,” said Zeller.
Gail Long called for unity in the new war on poverty. “We have to do this together, regardless of color or faith, or we are never going to get it done.”