We must finish the anti-poverty work of LBJ

Unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, and income inequality may be the issues of the day, but they have roots 50 years ago and before. These issues, of how we provide a safety net and create opportunity for the poor and working poor to achieve the American dream, were the framework that President Lyndon B. Johnson used when he declared an “unconditional War on Poverty” 50 years ago in his January 8, 1964 State of the Union address. I was thrilled to welcome Mrs. Lynda Johnson Robb, President Johnson’s eldest daughter, to the Capitol today to mark this historic occasion.

Just as President Obama called inequality the “defining issue of our time,” President Johnson recognized that, “This 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.”

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And here we are today, 50 years later, determined to redouble our efforts, recognizing that those same values in 1964 are alive today. Those values that created Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, the Food Stamp Act, the Clean Air Act, and even the Civil Rights Act, are the same today.

But it is time to refocus our efforts on eradicating poverty.

In 1964, the supplemental poverty rate (which takes the social safety net into account) was 26 percent. Today, it is 16 percent. That means more than 46 million Americans, including nearly 16 million children, are living in poverty. We must come together and tackle poverty in America like never before.

There are several steps that we can take.

First, we must raise the minimum wage. A simple rise from $7.25 to $10.10 would lift 4.6 million Americans out of poverty. That simple action would have an astounding, positive effect on our nation’s working poor, as well as our nation’s economy.

Second, we must extend unemployment insurance to the nation’s 1.3 million long-term unemployed. If we do not, we will reduce our economy growth by .4 percentage points in the first quarter of this year, and cost our economy jobs 310,000 jobs this year. Extending these benefits is not only the morally right thing to do, it’s the economically right thing to do, too.

Third, we must protect the safety net and reject any cuts to programs, like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (Women, Infants and Children nutrition). Programs like SNAP provide much-needed help to families living on the edge. I know, from personal experience, that these programs serve as a bridge over troubled water. In the 1970s, I was on public assistance, on food stamps. I was a college student and a single mother, trying to raise two boys. My country stepped up for me in a time of need, and I know that I would not a member of Congress if it were not for that lifeline that was extended to me.

Fourth, I know for a fact that people on food stamps want to work. They want to provide for their families, but there simply are not good jobs available.  A key component to tackling poverty is creating an economy that works for all. We must create better jobs.

This isn’t just an issue for one segments of our country or one region, it’s a national problem. It has to become a primary issue for all of us. For the next 50 legislative days, members of Congress will give 50 speeches on the House. Every day, a member will come to the floor to talk about how poverty and inequality impacts them and their constituents. We will hear about rural poverty, about how women are specifically impacted, about children living in poverty, and the lack of jobs. We’ll hear about about hunger, about access to healthcare, and immigration reform.

Our priorities in Congress have real consequences on real people. Do we support public education, workforce training, and universal pre-K, all of which are pathways out of poverty, or do we continue to provide oil subsidies, keep corporate loop holes and farm subsidies?

But we can’t just talk about this problem. We must commit to eradicating poverty, with the initial goal of cutting it in half in ten years. I have legislation supported by Democratic Members of Congress, to do this, but we need bipartisan support for it to pass.

We rallied around this goal 50 years ago, and we can do it again. Let us honor the legacy of a great president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who pricked the conscience of America and fought for the poor and the working poor so they could achieve the American dream.

Lee has represented congressional districts in north-central California since 1999. She sits on the Appropriations and the Budget committees.