#827 – Dick Bernard: The 50th Anniversary of the "War on Poverty" Speech by Lyndon Johnson

It came as a surprise to learn that today is the 50th anniversary of the speech that brought the words “War on Poverty” into the national conversation.
A lot of the national chatter in the last day or two is summarized here.
Back then, in early January, 1964, I had no clue about the speech, nor a clue that we were entering the world of poverty, of bare survival even though, at the time, I was fully employed.
Ours is an easy story to tell.
January 8, 1964, was a Wednesday, I was a young school teacher, in my first year of employment as a teacher, in far northwestern Minnesota. My wife and I lived in a tiny upstairs apartment a block from the school. She, too, had been a teacher – all of two months in the fall of 1963 – until she had to resign due to a kidney problem which ultimately led to her death two years later.
The tipping point from “normal” to “poverty” for us came unexpectedly but inexorably, and we went from normal early career pennies to less than nothing between 1963 and 1965.
In February, 1982, I wrote a family history for our son on the occasion of his 18th birthday, and here is what I said when our downward economic drift began in January, 1964:
“Late at night on January 6, 1964, Barb began to hemorrhage, and I drove her to St. Michael hospital in Grand Forks [ND]. I remember that it was an awful night to drive – very foggy. And we were scared, with good reason. But we made the 75 mile trip OK. Little did we know that Barb would not come back to Hallock again until March 6, 1964, and then would be only home for a week before going back into the hospital from March 14 to April 1. (Most of the time in Grand Forks she was in the hospital. For about two weeks, from February 11-24, she lived in a motel room to save money. That had to be an awful existence for her, since I had to work in Hallock, 75 miles away.”
(Son Tom was born February 26, 1964…50 is looming….”)
From then on, till her death July 24, 1965, our lives were constantly on edge, from day to day, literally, and any time I hear or see someone taking shots at the undeserving “poor”, I think back to those two years when our priority had to be day-to-day survival, rather than watching the stock market, or considering whether or not to buy a new garage door…the kinds of things the reasonably prosperous can do in this country.
Back then, the first several months after her death I had to struggle with avoiding bankruptcy due to uninsured medical bills which then seemed immense (public welfare saved my financial life that fall), but in today’s terms were relatively small.
The next few days, perhaps, the ‘chattering class’ and politicians especially will be figuring out how to position on what the War meant, or should mean, or doesn’t mean….
But today the people in poverty will again be struggling to simply survive the next 24 hours, with no interest in the fine points of law and policy that can grip my attention…and yours.
A few days ago, I did a piece on “The Homeless Guy” and at the end included a link to the most profound talk I ever heard about the poor, given in early May, 1982, by Monsignor Jerome Boxleitner, then-Director of Twin Cities Catholic Charities.
His words, Mgsr Boxleitner 1982001, are worth real reflection on this cold day in January 2014, the 50th anniversary of a speech about the “War on Poverty”.
Once I’ve written something, I often ponder “missing pieces” that might go unsaid in what (hopefully) are relatively short musings.
In this one, I need to differentiate between normal poverty for people like myself, including young people just starting out; and the kind of poverty that afflicts people longer term.
In our case, back in 1963-65, I was employed as a teacher, without any insurance. We were both employed as teachers for only about a two week time period that first year, so for all intents and purposes, ours was a single income household.
Like many young people, then and now, we experienced less than ideal conditions, but with the prospect that down the road things would improve.
That is normal kind of poverty for the kind of people who have the luxury of reading this blog….
The crisis poverty, which preoccupied us from the Fall of 1963 till after Barbara’s death in 1965 is another thing entirely. There is no semblance of “control”. Anything unusual that happens, an unexpected cost connected with an automobile, a hospitalization without insurance, and on and on and on, creates an almost daily sense of hopelessness, rendering the victim incapable of doing so-called rational things, like looking at the bright side; or going out to look for a second job; or on and on.
The War on Poverty, then and now, is for people for whom daily life is a struggle, and will be a struggle for the long term, and is not easily insurmountable.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.