War on Poverty

Desiree Metcalf's story is heartbreaking, but among the 46 million Americans who are poor today, her story is not unique.

Metcalf is 24 years old.

She's the mother of three little girls — ages 6, 4 and 2. They all have different fathers.

"That about sums me up, I think," she says.

There are 46 million poor people in the U.S., and millions more hover right above the poverty line — but go into many of their homes, and you might find a flat-screen TV, a computer or the latest sneakers.

And that raises a question: What does it mean to be poor in America today?

This week, we've been looking back at the legacy of the "War on Poverty," launched by Lyndon Johnson 50 years ago. The arsenal included government programs such as Head Start, food stamps and a push to increase the nation's minimum wage.

"We must extend the coverage of our minimum wage laws to more than 2 million workers now lacking this basic protection of purchasing power," Johnson said.

Low-wage workers actually saw their purchasing power peak while Johnson was in office. Adjusting for inflation, minimum wage workers earn less today than they did in the late 1960s.

Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson stood before Congress and declared an "unconditional war on poverty in America." His arsenal included new programs: Medicaid, Medicare, Head Start, food stamps, more spending on education and tax cuts to help create jobs.

In the coming year, NPR will explore the impact and extent of poverty in the U.S., and what can be done to reduce it.

For LBJ, The War On Poverty Was Personal

Jan 8, 2014

President Lyndon Johnson stood in the Capitol on Jan. 8, 1964, and, in his first State of the Union address, committed the nation to a war on poverty.

"We shall not rest until that war is won," Johnson said. "The richest nation on Earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it."

It was an effort that had been explored under President Kennedy, but it firmly — and quickly — took shape under Johnson.