January 8th 1964: President Lyndon Baines Johnson addressed Congress at his first State of the Union address . . . just a few months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In his predecessor's memory, President Johnson pledged to continue JFK's plans and programs, "not because of our sorrow or sympathy, but because they are right."
LBJ was a compelling speaker who described the realities of a United States burdened with 19% poverty:
"Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope -- some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.
This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.
It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it. ...
Our chief weapons in a more pinpointed attack will be better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities to help more Americans, especially young Americans, escape from squalor and misery and unemployment rolls where other citizens help to carry them."
January 8th 2014: 100 Rhode Island faith leaders and social justice activists gathered in the rotunda of the State house. The Co-Chair of the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty, Maxine Richman, connected our contemporary efforts with those of President Johnson 50 years ago to the day:
"The Food stamp Act, Head Start, Medicare, Medicaid, Community Action programs, VISTA and The Job Corps were some of the historic legislation created as a response to the War on Poverty
With these important programs still in place today, our interfaith coalition asks:
How can it be that 50 years later, here in RI, 13.7% of our residents, 19.5% of our children and 9.2% of our seniors live in poverty?
How can it be that nearly 180,00 Rhode Islanders depend upon SNAP or food stamps to supplement their nourishment and that the General Assembly ‘s community grant to The RI Food bank has been reduced by half since 2008 ?
How can it be that 6000 people waited in line, some all through the night, to put their names on a waiting list for affordable housing in East Providence. and that it could take years before they would be called for an apartment?
How can it be that 370 Head Start slots in RI for low income preschoolers were cut due to the sequester, when early childhood education is imperative to help lift these children out of poverty?"
How can it be?
As I read President Johnson's State of the Union Address and I contemplated the questions posed by Maxine Richman on behalf of our Rhode Island Coalition to Reduce Poverty, I was struck by the overlap between President Johnson's agenda and the legislative agenda advanced by our Coalition for the Rhode Island General Assembly's new legislative session:
President Johnson wrote of the pressing need for "better schools, better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities. Our Coalition Legislative Agenda, circulated at the Statehouse this past Wednesday states:
All Rhode Islanders have a warm place to live, food on the table and adequate health care:
Affordable Housing and Just Cause (eviction). (RI Coalition for the Homeless)
State appropriate for the RI Food Bank (RI Community Food Bank)
Affordable health insurance for seniors (Senior Agenda)
If you work you should not be poor:
Increase the minimum wage and the state Earned Income Tax Credit (EPI)
Reform Pay Day lending (Pay Day Lending Coalition)
Allow working parents who can’t afford child care to keep their child care assistance as income rises. Provide child care assistance to parents who want to go to job training. (EPI and RI Kids Count)
Allow parents with limited literacy and/or English language skills who receive RI Works cash assistance to gain the skills they need to be successful in the workforce by lifting the 6 month limit on work-readiness programs targeted to this population. (EPI and RI Kids Count)
Education, healthcare, housing, job training . . . 50 years after President Johnson's declaration of war, these battlegrounds are still hotbeds of contention. 50 years after President Johnson's compassionate acknowledgement of Americans "living on the outskirts of hope" we are still pulling together as faith communities united in the determination to instill hope.
The biblical book of Mishlei/Proverbs teaches: "One who oppresses the poor disdains their Maker;
whoever is gracious to the needy honors God." (Proverbs 14:31)
This is a call to both compassion and action. Perhaps 50 years is not long enough to win such a war . . . but we are not allowed to lose heart, for so many are depending on this war being won. God-willing it won't take yet another 50 years. For the honor of God, for the sake of our own humanity, let us advance on these battlefields, let us urge our legislators to move forward . . . . because it is the right thing to do.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.