US war on poverty still not won, 50 years on

WASHINGTON (AFP) - In his first State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in America. Fifty years later some progress has been made but gaping inequality remains.

"This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America," Mr Johnson told Congress on Jan 8, 1964, two months after he succeeded the assassinated John F. Kennedy.

"We shall not rest until that war is won," he declared.

The US poverty rate has dropped from 26 per cent in 1964 to 16 per cent today, thanks in particular to a variety of food aid programmes and tax credits, says the Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

But poverty in the world's largest economy is far from being eradicated.

In 2012 it affected some 47 million Americans, including 13 million children, which Mr James Ziliak, director of the Centre for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky, dubs "a very high number". A US Census Bureau report revealed on Tuesday, Jan 7, 2014, that nearly one in three Americans experienced poverty for at least two months during the global recession between 2009 and 2011.

Some battles have been won, such as that targeting extreme malnutrition, or have have seen partial wins, such as the programme providing health insurance for the poor and the aged, he said.

"If we did not have any safety net programmes, the rate would be doubled," he told Agence France-Presse.

By any measure, poverty has gone down significantly among the elderly, which was one of Johnson's priorities.

Poverty among children has also declined since Johnson made his famous call to arms.

But one in five kids in America still lives in poverty and more than one in five children in New York, for example, lives in a family that does not have enough to eat, the Coalition against Hunger says.

A total of 25 major cities also reported that requests for food assistance or the number of homeless had gone up in the past year, illustrating the slow pace of progress in the war on poverty.

As for the gap between rich and poor, it is progressing at a "dangerous" pace, in the words of President Barack Obama, who said last year that the richest 10 per cent no longer take in a third of all revenue but rather half.

New York City's new mayor Bill de Blasio was elected in November on a pledge to end inequality in the nation's largest metropolis, which has the largest number of billionaires in the world but where 21 per cent of the people live below the poverty line.

In his 1964 speech Mr Johnson also called for abolishing all forms of racial discrimination. Now, a half century later, "a large gap" in economic terms remains between white and black households, says the CBPP.

The situation is difficult because lawmakers disagree on what the solution is.

Republicans and Democrats struggle to reach agreement on levels of food aid in the so-called Snap programme - Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme - or food stamps, denying meals to some families.

Another programme extending jobless benefits to long-term unemployed people ran out of funds on Dec 31.

In 1996 an overhaul of some aid programmes led to a rise in extreme poverty, mainly in single-parent homes, according to a study released in May by the University of Michigan.

But spending more money on the problem is just a partial solution, according to the Brookings Institution, a prestigious think tank.

It says that in order to wage an effective war on poverty, three factors must be addressed: education, because it is difficult to escape poverty without a good education or marketable skill; jobs, because unemployment is the "surest route to poverty; and the family, because "kids in single-parent families are about five times as likely to be poor as children in married-couple families."