At first glance, the boys and girls filing into a Head Start class on a recent, snowy morning in Salt Lake City look like any other 3- and 4-year-olds.
Almost all of the kids wear snow boots, and warm coats hang in their cubbyholes in the hallway.
There’s a little girl with mussy hair and a flowered dress doling out puzzles to her friends and a skinny boy crumpled in the corner who cries as soon as he arrives, already missing home. The hum of squeaky voices and dimpled little hands playing with toys grows each time the door opens with another student, until finally, it’s time to take a seat at the tiny tables where breakfast awaits.
That’s when other subtle clues emerge to suggest that this classroom is a little different.
For one thing, these students all live in poverty, part of the 24 percent of children in America under age 6 who are classified as poor. Their coats and boots were given to them by Head Start, the government-funded preschool program that teaches them about numbers, letters, health and nutrition, and feeds them a square meal every day — perhaps the only one they get.
Their parents, in an average family of four, make about $13,700 a year. Their classroom is one of the remaining vestiges of the "war on poverty” declared by President Lyndon B. Johnson 50 years ago in his first-ever State of the Union address on Jan. 8, 1964.
Whether a strategic move to set his presidency apart from his predecessor, President John F. Kennedy, or because Johnson himself grew up poor, Johnson's war on poverty created welfare programs and practices that still stand at the epicenter of budgetary, policy and humanitarian debates today. As the country's unemployment rate has soared above 6 percent for more than five years, and another national budget crisis looms on the horizon, some experts say Johnson’s programs — like food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start — have worsened the situation for America’s poor. Yet as America’s poverty rate hovered around 15 percent in 2012 — compared to 19 percent in 1964, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey — other advocates argue Johnson’s programs and subsequent additions of a safety net have lifted more people out of poverty than ever before.
While neither side sees eye-to-eye on many things when it comes to poverty, there is consensus that something must be done — the question is what.
But here, in the Head Start classroom where the children are sitting in little metal chairs, happily eating their breakfasts, there is a different question from the eager kids with crumbs on their plates: can they have another bran muffin?
Today, they’re in luck. There’s more for everyone.
LBJ’s War on Poverty
When Johnson stood to give his first State of the Union address on Jan. 8, 1964, he had only been president for six weeks. His oath of office was initiated under the cloud of death and uncertainty that followed after Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, and Johnson was determined to use this customary speech to make a mark and claim his presidency as his own.
“Every president has to develop a moral underpinning to his power, or he soon discovers he has no power at all,” Johnson wrote about his initial challenges of being president in his memoir, “Vantage Point.”
“For me, that presented special problems. I knew I was an unknown quantity to many of my countrymen and to much of the world when I assumed office. I suffered another handicap, since I had come to the Presidency not through the collective will of the people but in the wake of tragedy. I had no mandate from the voters.”
In searching for a cause to claim as his own, Johnson met with Walter Heller, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and Kennedy’s chief economic adviser. Heller had encouraged Kennedy to institute a program to deal with poverty, and the idea hit a nerve with Johnson. He jumped at the chance to propose a plan that wasn’t synonymous for the public with Kennedy’s name. He announced his intention to alleviate poverty as soon as he could, promising in his 1964 address to not only “relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it, and, above all, to prevent it.”
To that end, several key programs were established as hallmarks of the war on poverty — although many of the resulting programs have been at the heart of an ongoing debate over money, government spending and America’s poor for decades.
Johnson’s initial budget dedicated $1 billion to the effort — $500 million for existing programs and $500 million for new programs, such as the Social Security Amendments Act of 1965 that created Medicare and Medicaid and extended Social Security benefits to include retirees, widows and the disabled. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which established Title I funding for schools with a majority of impoverished students, was also created, food stamps became a permanent government program, and the Office of Economic Opportunity was established to oversee social programs such as Volunteers in Service to America, Job Corps, the Community Action Program, the Neighborhood Youth Corps and Head Start.
Many of the programs established during Johnson’s war on poverty have changed since their creation. The Office of Economic Opportunity was dissolved in 1974, along with several of its programs, which were disbanded or transferred to other organizations for oversight.
At the end of Johnson’s presidency, he looked back on his war on poverty as a success, despite the debate his programs inspired even early on. Still, despite his promises, by the time Johnson left office, he said there was work yet to be done.
“When I look back at conservation, civil rights, education and the war on poverty, I think, ‘So little have we done. So much have we yet to do,’ ” Johnson told a group of friends gathered together at a dinner a week before he left office. “So as we prepare to depart, we leave the plow in the furrow, and actually, the field is only half tilled. A president has only so much time to do the things that he really believes in and he thinks must be done. Within those limits I know that I have given it everything I have had.”
Funding the war
Money has been tight at the Salt Lake Community Action Plan’s Head Start program before, but they’ve always gotten by.
The program, which is based in Utah — one of seven states in the country that doesn’t offer Head Start state funding — hasn’t received any increases to its budget in 10 years, despite a waiting list that at any given time has about 800 students. But with the help of community partnerships, foundations and support from corporations, the program maintained all of its services up until the 2013 sequestration that reduced Head Start’s budget by 5 percent and eliminated services for 57,000 children across the country.
“You know, it’s sad we have to absorb these cuts,” said Nancy Hobbes, operations manager of Head Start at Salt Lake Community Action Program. “We tried to make it as minimal as possible and only cut home-based programs but the sequestration is the first time that we really had to deal with funding cuts. We tightened our belts — but not cut.”
Some would argue programs like Head Start should have been cut a long time ago as a luxury the country simply cannot afford. In 2012, the government spent $7.9 billion on Head Start, according to the Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families, and $773 billion on Social Security benefits, $732 billion on Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and $411 billion on safety net programs such as the Child Tax Credit and food stamps, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The government borrowed about $1 trillion to finance the budget, acccording to the center.
Spending so much money on programs designed to target poverty has harmed the country, says Sheldon Richman, vice president of the Future of Freedom Foundation, a Libertarian think tank that advocates minimal government involvement.
“The way I see it is the money spent has all been a symbolic distraction,” Richman says. “At the same time a lot of money is spent on the poor, most of which goes to middle-class bureaucrats, they don’t do the real things that would lift low-income people out of their situation. They don’t remove the countless barriers the government places in the way.”
The way to alleviate America’s poverty problem is not through welfare programs, conservatives like Richman say, but through a free market where licensing and regulations are minimal. If there were no minimum wage, workers would be more motivated to gain skills and education that would result in better pay, critics of the war on poverty say. If there were fewer licensing regulations and no taxes, people could independently create their own businesses and have more money to contribute to charity, critics say.
“Economic growth is the best recipe for getting people out of poverty, but the war on poverty imposed a limit on the ability of people to get out of poverty,” says William Shughart, research director and senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a nonprofit public policy research and educational organization that studies political economy. “The war on poverty pays people to be poor and provides incentives which are counterproductive to the ultimate goal of lifting people out of poverty. The best way to do that is to allow markets to work and allow people to capture the returns of their own efforts.”
However, others say a poor economy is the very thing threatening to raise the poverty rate in America. The safety net of government programs is one thing that helps to offset a growing income disparity that distributes 20 percent of the country’s income to the top 1 percent, says Eric Stegman, manager of the Half in Ten campaign at the Center for American Progress, a progressive political issues think tank based in Washington, D.C. Half in Ten, which was launched in 2007, aims to build public and political will to cut the poverty rate in half in 10 years.
“When we cut programs like Head Start, we’re not cutting one area of early education, we’re cutting support that helps families find jobs and maintain jobs,” Stegman says. “People don’t understand there are programs like Head Start that suffered serious cuts that provide not only early education, but nutrition, child care and things like transportation.”
In 2012, government programs helped lift out of poverty 44 percent of people who would have been below the poverty line without assistance, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. But proponents of those programs agree the government’s safety net for families and children has weakened. With the poverty rate of children under age 18 at 21.8 percent, compared to 13.7 percent for people ages 18-64 and 9.1 percent for people over 65, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, programs affecting children are of particular concern.
“The impact of poverty is very real,” says Sharon Parrott, vice president for Budget Policy and Economic Opportunity at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “There is a lot that can be done to promote real opportunity so people have the tools to fulfill their full potential.”
In the trenches
As the teachers and employees at the Shriver Building in Salt Lake go to and from work every day, wiping noses, brushing teeth and singing the alphabet song, they are well aware of Head Start’s critics. They know their program isn't perfect and that someday, their funding could be revoked.
With her office one floor up from the Head Start classroom, the thought is never far from Joni Clark’s mind.
“We’re one of the largest agencies, but we don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel to be able to increase services to serve our kids on our wait list any time soon,” says Clark, chief development officer of the Salt Lake Community Action Program that runs this Head Start program.
She tells the story of a time one teacher noticed a student limping when he walked, so the teacher called him over to see what was wrong. She found his shoes were two different sizes, and he wore medical gloves on his feet instead of socks. Clark thinks about that student getting new, warm shoes and socks, and she wishes she could help all of the kids who are poor who can't come to preschool.
As she watches the students sit in a circle, wiggling and singing the alphabet song, she realizes there are a lot of arguments about the best way to alleviate poverty and how to pay for it. She knows the problems facing her students in the world are bigger than breakfast and a new pair of shoes.
But, as the snow falls and the skinny boy in the corner warms up to his teacher and joins the rest of the students, one question comes to Clark's mind again and again — "If we weren't here today, where would they be?"