50 years later, an opportunity agenda for Congress

She was a young, single mother and full of hope for the future – for herself, for her two children. But like many who aspire to climb to the middle class – or who are already there but wish to remain – hope sometimes needs a helping hand.

For Barbara Lee, now a U.S. congresswoman, that helping hand came in the form of food assistance and California’s Medicaid program, known as MediCal. These programs allowed her to go to college and put her on her path to becoming the successful leader she is today. “If it hadn’t been for that bridge over troubled waters,” she says, “I don’t know where I’d be.”

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Fifty years ago this week, LBJ declared “War on Poverty” during a rousing State of the Union address before Congress – his first since assuming the presidency just seven weeks earlier.

LBJ correctly surmised that there was no one way to fight poverty, not a single magic bullet that would ameliorate its causes or its effects. And it might surprise many Americans that many of the very programs he established and pursued with vigor weren’t aimed at impoverished Americans at all – but rather the middle class. After all, it’s one thing to target and eliminate poverty. It’s another to make sure middle-income Americans never slip through the safety net to begin with.

Medicare. Medicaid. Food assistance. Head Start. Federal support for elementary and secondary education. Higher Social Security benefits. College aid and loan programs. These are but a few of the programs that were launched or expanded under the Great Society – and while lifting many people like Barbara Lee out of poverty, they also helped nurture along a thriving middle class that was growing from the edges out.

Fifty years ago, the catchword of the day was poverty. Looking back – and looking forward as Congress faces today’s challenges – maybe a better catchword is opportunity.

In these tumultuous times, with so many Americans still struggling from the 2008 economic meltdown, there is a fine line between being poor and middle class. Too many families live in poverty – and many middle class families are living on the brink of poverty, with but a thin safety net all that exists between them and disaster.

So what does Congress have the opportunity to do to ensure that the middle class thrives – along with the potential Barbara Lees of the world?

Congress has the opportunity to expand early childhood education. Recent studies show that kids who attend preschool not only do better in school as they grow older – they are also more likely to go to college and get a good job. Every kid deserves a fair shot at life, and education is the best investment we can make in a stronger, more prosperous America.

Congress has the opportunity to expand the fight against childhood hunger. Hungry children can’t learn, and children who don’t learn won’t succeed in life – and that’s a roadblock to the middle class. Yet, Congress actually cut food assistance last year for 22 million kids.

Congress has the opportunity to extend the safety net that federal unemployment assistance represents. A recent study by the Congressional Budget Office found that many middle-income families will slip into poverty without extended benefits. In 2012 alone, unemployment assistance kept more than 1.7 million people, including 655,000 women and 446,000 children, from falling into poverty.

Fifty years after LBJ declared war on poverty, it’s time for Congress to set course on a new agenda – an opportunity agenda that gives impoverished Americans the chance to climb to the middle class, and middle-income Americans the chance to stay there.

Elliot is communications director for Fair Share, which stands for an America where everyone gets their fair share, does their fair share, and pays their fair share; and where everyone plays by the same rules.