Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

'Change is gonna come': Poverty from Johnson to Obama

By Donna Brazile, CNN Political Commentator
updated 11:23 AM EST, Mon January 20, 2014
U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson visits a family in Inez, Kentucky, during a tour of poverty-stricken areas of the country in April 1964. Earlier that year, Johnson declared a "war on poverty" in his State of the Union address. He then worked with Congress to pass more than 200 pieces of legislation, which included early education programs and social safety nets such as Medicare and Medicaid. U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson visits a family in Inez, Kentucky, during a tour of poverty-stricken areas of the country in April 1964. Earlier that year, Johnson declared a "war on poverty" in his State of the Union address. He then worked with Congress to pass more than 200 pieces of legislation, which included early education programs and social safety nets such as Medicare and Medicaid.
HIDE CAPTION
50 years of the 'war on poverty'
50 years of the 'war on poverty'
50 years of the 'war on poverty'
50 years of the 'war on poverty'
50 years of the 'war on poverty'
50 years of the 'war on poverty'
50 years of the 'war on poverty'
50 years of the 'war on poverty'
50 years of the 'war on poverty'
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Donna Brazile says while poverty has decreased, it has taken on a new form
  • Brazile: Lyndon Johnson knew what poverty looked like among poor whites and Latinos
  • Brazile: There's a secret behind obstructing Barack Obama's economic equality agenda

Editor's note: Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. She is a nationally syndicated columnist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of "Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pot in America." She was manager for the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000.

(CNN) -- Oh there been times that I thought I couldn't last for long
But now I think I'm able to carry on
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.
—Sam Cooke

While many Americans continue to live on the "outskirts of hope," we still have reason to believe "a change is gonna come."

President Ronald Reagan's snarky comment in 1987 that "We waged war on poverty, and poverty won" was inaccurate and inhumane. Poverty is different, less widespread, and much less prevalent among older Americans now than before Social Security. I know that from my own experience, my family's experience, and the experience of the people I grew up with.

Donna Brazile
Donna Brazile

A recent study by Columbia University confirms that experience: Adjusted for inflation, poverty fell from about 26% in 1967 to 16% in 2012 as a result of anti-poverty government policies and support. Yet, at the same time, the share of earned income available is shrinking in the private sector. The end result is fewer poor because of government's safety nets, but more and more people living on the brink of poverty because they don't have access to the wealth from our recovering economy.

Contrary to what some affluent, arrogant and ignorant pundits are saying, President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty had nothing to do with the expansion of welfare as we used to know it -- Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The major War on Poverty programs were about education, empowerment and the elderly — Head Start, student aid and Medicare, to name a few.

Growing up around poor whites and Latinos in Texas, Johnson understood that poverty in America doesn't only have a black face. He launched the war on poverty in Appalachia, and later spoke movingly to Congress about the Mexican-American students whom he had taught as a very young man, saying: "My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast and hungry. And they knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them, but they knew it was so because I saw it in their eyes. ... And somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child."

Fighting extreme poverty
Gov.: Government can help lessen poverty
Fight on extending unemployment continues

Fifty years later, in the photographs of Johnson talking with poor families in Appalachia, we see that he is really listening to them -- they are not strangers to each other. They aren't props for photo-ops. He has known these people all his life. And he never forgot where he came from.

Marie Brookter, in her autobiography, "Here I Am -- Take My Hand," tells how Lyndon Johnson sought her counsel on his civil rights and poverty programs. When she called Johnson, or left a message at the White House front gate, he promptly called her back. He was open, humble, and genuinely seeking guidance in attacking poverty.

We have become bound by a political straitjacket that frames every debate: Too much federal government. Yet our forefathers forged this system for us. The federal government can accomplish what the states, acting alone or even in concert, cannot. Poverty is a national issue and needs a federal response. After all, U.S. federal government policies helped produce massive income inequality by lopsided breaks for the super wealthy.

Since the '70s, government policies have driven the economic benefits that produced the biggest income gap between the top 1% and the bottom 90% since the Great Depression. For the first time in U.S. history, the bottom 90% earn less than 50% of the nation's income. Even the rich, 52% of them, tell pollsters the economic system favors the wealthy.

The untold secret driving the obstruction to Obama's economic equality agenda is this: The opposition isn't really battling Big Government. The opposition is protecting an economic system that's putting more and more of the earned income out of reach for those aspiring to better themselves.

Helping the poor doesn't mean redistributing the wealth. It means removing the breaks that give the wealthy an advantage so huge that big chunks of the nation's income are automatically removed from individual economic competition.

We don't have to frame every debate as right vs. wrong, left vs. right. Adjusting a wayward economy's tilt to the wealthy shouldn't be an either-or, despite some pundits' delight in false dilemmas. Even the weather gets treated as "I win-you lose."

The mentality that we can "come together" doesn't exist today.

But there's nothing wrong about working to further reduce poverty, or giving all Americans a fair shot at working their way up.

We, as a nation, have moral imperatives. We need to recognize that no one has all the answers. We need to agree that income inequality is a problem, that in the wealthiest nation on earth, people should not be both working and starving. We need government solutions. Members of Congress who obstruct our meeting the needs of the people need to return to their hometowns as private citizens.

Trust me, "A change is gonna come."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.
Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Donna Brazile.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 10:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 7:37 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 4:41 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT