War on Poverty: 50 Years Later

The typical spring break of a college student involves hanging out with friends, sleeping a lot, and eating way too much of mom’s home cooking.

But each year, for a handful of students, this is not the case.

Every year, Cedarville’s community ministries sends a number of teams designed to minister to people in need across the United States. The teams partnered with organizations like Inner City Impact, Shepherds Ministries, Service Over Self and others.

Students came back from these experiences with a new perspective on poverty in the United States, a reality most middle-class Americans view merely as a statistic.

“Atlantic City is a big casino town,” said Abby Cline, member of the Urban Partnership team. “The contrast between the towering, blinking, alluring casinos and the run-down, haphazard, dilapidated shops and homes painfully demonstrated the gap in American living conditions.”

Several students worked with Service Over Self (SOS) ministries in Memphis, Tenn., repairing the homes of disadvantaged individuals.

Allison Bond said of one home they worked at, “The floor was slanting down – not just a tiny bit, but majorly. The bathroom was falling apart. The toilet seat would move when you were sitting on it. I think at one point they were heating their house with their oven – like the oven you cook food with.”

Another spring break ministry team went to work in a Chicago school with Inner City Impact.

Kari Morris said she talked with a group of middle school girls about the possibility of attending college in the future.

“Each of them had the same reply,” she said. “They weren’t planning on attending college. They simply wanted to be accepted into the high school they applied for.”

According to Morris, inner-city students in Chicago are required to apply to the high school they wish to attend. Otherwise, they are placed in a school that may or may not have adequate educational standards.

Spring break mission trips are not the only way Cedarville students engage poverty.

In previous years, former professor Jeff Cook ran a poverty weekend for his intro to urban ministries class. Though he is no longer at Cedarville, Cook offered the experience to students several weekends this past year. During this time, students live like the homeless for three days. But that’s all they know about it until they arrive.

“I was able to experience the reality of poverty first hand,” said Hayley Blackburn, who took part in a poverty weekend this semester. “Before the weekend, I knew that there were homeless Americans and people who struggled to get the basic necessities for survival but I was unaware of how close they were to me.”

Different aspects of poverty were surprising for students. Blackburn said she missed the “unlimited access to food” she usually had.

War on Poverty

The existence of numerous organizations designed to fight poverty attests to the perseverance of Americans working to eliminate it. Whether through shelters, financial aid, soup kitchens or other efforts, kindhearted individuals try to push back the swelling tide of poverty.

This is not a recent undertaking.

This year marks 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his famous “War on Poverty.”

In his State of the Union Address on January 8, 1964, Johnson said, “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. … 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.”

Fifty years later, the poverty levels have, in two generations, fallen from 19 percent to 15 percent, reports The New York Times.

While this decrease by a mere four percent seems a dismal failure to some, the Times considers it a success that poverty rates have not risen at all.

In honor of the anniversary, the Times created an interactive map of income levels in America based on information from the Census Bureau.

In a single glance, the dark blue splatters across the map show where the poor live across the states. Resting the cursor over any geographic location gives the reader a poverty rate and the population of impoverished in that area. The darkest blue blots mark areas where 40 percent of the population falls below the poverty line.

In 2012, the Census Bureau reported that $23,283 marked the poverty threshold for a family of four.

To put this in perspective, consider San Jose, California, the wealthiest metropolitan area in the States. Compared to Brownsville, Texas, the poorest area, the median household income is nearly $60,000 more per year.

What students learned

The exposure to poverty that Cedarville students have faced has changed them. When asked the most important lesson they learned, students responded with several insights.

Jeremy Dick, a member of the SOS trip, said he learned that the people were not different from him, even in the face of their economic conditions.

“They are truly people, not merely statistics,” he said.

Katie Hughes, another SOS trip member, said, “Christians can serve the poor by living among them.”

Blackburn said, “I am not inadequate to serve. My fears of being useless in urban ministry are not true.”

No one knows for sure where the War on Poverty will lead within the next 50 years. However, through their various experiences, many Cedarville students now realize the plight of the needy and want to make a difference.

As President Johnson said, “[T]he war against poverty will not be won here in Washington. It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House.”

Kaity Kenniv is a sophomore Biblical studies major and a reporter for Cedars. She loves reading by a blazing fireplace, taking long walks in the autumn and a cup of hot tea in the morning.

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