FIFTY YEARS after Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, the societal challenges Johnson sought to alleviate have intensified. When President Obama marked this anniversary in his 2014 State of the Union address, he acknowledged this collective failure by recognizing poverty and inequality as the central problem of our time.
The solutions to this problem that we hear from our leaders are varied. I propose that the real solution to addressing poverty - and challenging a system that creates extreme economic inequality in the first place - must come from within the ranks of poor and working people themselves. I am not the first to make this claim: There were two moments in U.S. history when we placed faith and hope in the power of poor and working people.
Johnson declared his War on Poverty in 1964, amid a confluence of conditions: the growing strength of the civil-rights movement; the violence and unrest in the ghettos of northern cities; and a growing awareness of poverty amid plenty and the need for international prestige during the Cold War. The signature legislation of the War on Poverty was the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which was the basis for many critical federal programs, including Head Start and VISTA. At the heart of the act was a provision that called for the "maximum feasible participation" of the poor in the programs that worked to alleviate poverty.
Many activists, including some leaders from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, saw it as an avenue to empower poor and working people not only to make changes in their lives, but, more importantly, to build alternative structures through which society could be transformed. These alternative structures are exemplified by Head Start policy councils, which still exist to this day. The policy councils are governing boards in which parents living in poverty play a critical role in directing Head Start.
In Mississippi, the Economic Opportunity Act led to the development of a network of preschool programs for impoverished black communities, funded by the federal government while promoting community organization and leadership among poor black Americans. This network known as the Child Development Group of Mississippi enabled programs that cared for young people - about 12,000 children were educated - while building the political and economic power of poor black Mississippians. Ultimately, it was defunded. Shortly thereafter, as our government's appetite for addressing poverty and inequality at the root waned, the broader EOA initiatives were slowly starved of funds and energy. This letdown points to the limits of legislative programs, even those based in building the power of poor and working people, as the basis for societal transformation.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized the constraints of governmental interventions, and he charted a different way forward. Toward the end of his life, King identified the need to pivot from civil rights to a broader struggle for social and economic rights. He called for a "Poor People's Campaign" that would begin with poor people of all races traveling to Washington, D.C., to demand an economic bill of rights.
From the outset of this struggle, King predicted that attacking poverty would be much more difficult than earlier civil-rights campaigns. In 1967, he explained: "We aren't merely struggling to integrate a lunch counter now. We're struggling to get some money to be able to buy a hamburger or a steak when we get to the counter."
King was not demanding "handouts" or an entitlement society. Instead, he was calling for a radical transformation of society. Transformation that would need to be driven - could only be driven - by the power of a true social movement led by poor and working people. King explained: "It is my hope that power for poor people will really mean having the ability and the aggressiveness to make the power structure of this nation say 'yes' when they may be desirous of saying 'no.' " King's assassination in 1968 proved fatal for the Poor People's Campaign.
Without the movement King envisioned, 50 years later things have gotten much worse. We are all familiar with the statistics: Since the 1970s, inequality has increased and the wages of poor and working people have flatlined while productivity and profits have soared. CEOs own an obscenely large chunk of the pie, the ranks of the poor and working class grow while our once-proud middle class shrinks. These trends are not only a problem for the growing legion of poor across the country, they are disturbing trends for all society and threaten our political, social, economic and environmental future.
In the months and years to come, there will be a lot of ideas put forward about how we can solve poverty and inequality in this country. Some solutions will be pure deceit, like the suggestion that marriage will solve poverty, choice will solve education and free enterprise will solve unemployment. Other solutions will be partial but necessary governmental interventions such as the expansion of Medicaid and early education programs. Still, other solutions will offer complex programs for engaging education, housing or health care that, although important in the short term, will not change the balance of power that creates poverty and inequality.
There is only one thing that can change this balance of power: an organized, powerful community of poor and working people emerging in unison through their own vision and political independence as a national force. There are many regional illustrations. Take, for example, the Moral Monday marches that are calling for a new economic and democratic bill of rights across North Carolina, or fast-food workers who are organizing for the right to $15 an hour and a union. Here at home, progressive and working-class forces have begun to collaborate and build power through Progressive Philly Rising; and next summer, Philadelphia will be a central site of the United States Social Forum. While these examples are piecemeal, as they grow in number and stature we can imagine how they could be knit together to make an impressive tapestry, which acts as a prophecy for a more-just nation.
Recognizing this profound power, King wrote in the 1960s: "There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life."
King's vision is still what is needed to solve the central problem of our time. It is through organizing in our communities, our union halls, our churches and our schools, while forging powerful organizations that fight for the interests of poor and working people, and scaling up from the local to the regional and national, that we can build a society in which everyone can lead a dignified life. There is no shortcut and no other solution.
Todd Wolfson is the co-founder of Media Mobilizing Project and assistant professor of media and communications at Rutgers University.