Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
When it comes to eliminating poverty, private charity cannot replace public policy, and public policy must be guided by a moral perspective. We have the resources to overcome poverty. The big question, as always, is whether we have the will to do so.
Fifty years ago this month, in his first State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty in America.” Johnson saw this as a national priority and he urged Congress and the American people to join him in the endeavor “to help that one-fifth of all American families with incomes too small to even meet their basic needs.” It was, he said, a war we “can afford to win,” one that we could “not afford to lose.”
Johnson understood that to improve the condition of the destitute, we had to attack the root causes of poverty, and not merely its symptoms. In the years that followed, his administration launched a volley of programs, many of which are still with us today, to offer the poor better education, better healthcare, better jobs, and better homes. They included Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start, better funding for K-12 education, loans to low-income college students, housing assistance for low-income families, and legal aid for the poor. Under Johnson, the food stamp pilot project became a permanent program that would eventually eliminate severe malnutrition, which, in the early 1960s, made parts of the U.S. seem as if they were in a Third World country.