Looking Back and Looking Ahead on 50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty

This week has heard much discussion on income inequality as we recognize the 50th Anniversary of LBJ’s declared “War on Poverty.” A recent blog by Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube argues that the War has not been lost, but rather the battlefield has changed as poverty rates have grown in suburban communities. Complex issues such as poverty, which are influenced by innumerable social, economic and political factors, are not easy to tackle in a generation or even a lifetime. While progress has been made on some counts, i.e. the restoration of many urban neighborhoods that suffered from blight 50 years ago, by other measures it is easy to lose heart, i.e. 15% of our nation still lives below the poverty level.

Yet, what is notable when we step back is the commitment by each generation to learn from past mistakes and re-dedicate itself to making a dent on issues of poverty, social injustice and racial, economic or gender disparities. As any church-goer knows, this is a process that has been repeated since at least the time of Christ. In just the past 10 years we have been reminded through such shocks as the fiscal and housing foreclosure crises to Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, that neither the national or local economies can thrive if those most in need are not able to fully participate in society.

In reflecting on notable achievements from 2013, I am struck by three separate federal actions that received little fanfare but are important to the War on Poverty’s arsenal. Each respond to one of the most profound lessons we have learned over the past 50 years -- the causes of poverty are often inter-related and cannot be successfully addressed by only focusing on housing, or education, or employment. Rather, integrated approaches are needed.

Back in January, the Federal Transit Administration announced proposed changes to how it would evaluate transit projects seeking federal funding. Finalized in August, the new rules reward communities that take steps to preserve and expand affordable housing located near new transit corridors. This past summer, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development announced a renewed commitment to the national Fair Housing Act and signaled greater recognition that regional efforts may be needed to affirmatively further local fair housing strategies and to connect housing to transportation, employment and educational opportunities. Earlier this winter, US DOT and HUD jointly announced a new federal data tool, “The Location Affordability Portal,” that allows households and communities to quantify the often hidden combined costs of housing and transportation, and redefining our notion of affordable locations. Together -- financial incentives + better data + smarter regulations -- can lead to greater opportunity for low-income households. But as we’ve seen over the past 50 years of fighting poverty, this outcome is not guaranteed.

In the coming year there will be continued, and vital opportunities to reinforce this work. Communities are already at work to implement these tools. Congress will at least theoretically take up reauthorization of federal transportation legislation set to expire in September, and determine spending levels for a bevy of housing and transportation programs. HUD and USDOT will issue and finalize Fair Housing and New Starts guidance. There are ample opportunities for each of us to weigh in to influence how the next 50 years will treat our nation’s most vulnerable populations.