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Fifty years after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty,” Mississippi remains the poorest state in the nation.
Most advocates and economists say Johnson’s social programs such as Head Start and child care subsidies have made huge differences in the state and across the country, yet they’re not reaching most in need.
On the demographics of Mississippi’s impoverished residents
“Mississippi’s poor children are concentrated in single-mother households; 76 percent of Mississippi’s poor children live with a single mom. And those are moms that are working. … Even though they have the same graduation rates or better graduation rates as men, they’re still earning less than men in every professional level, in every job sector, and they’re concentrated in low-wage work. Eight out of 10 low-wage earners in Mississippi are women.”
On the impact of the ‘War on Poverty’
“The War on Poverty made a hugely positive difference on the state of Mississippi. When you remember what life was like in the state in 1965, there’s no question that we’ve moved forward, that we’ve made progress on issues of race, we’ve made progress in anti-poverty programs. There are some new anti-poverty programs that Mississippi has benefited from that weren’t part of the War on Poverty. But we still have a very long way to go.”
On creating effective anti-poverty programs
“With the poverty programs, too many times we have policies that are created based on myths. One big example of that is the myth that the poor are not working. In fact, we’ve seen – I’ve seen in my work – that low income parents are working. It’s just their work isn’t paying enough to help them meet their family’s basic needs and create opportunities that allow them to climb out of poverty.”
“Education is important. All of the research shows that the higher level of education you have, the less likely it will be that you will be in poverty. And that is a very important strategy also for moving families out of poverty. It’s important that women who are these single moms have access to education. It’s important that they have access to job training — that’s going to move them into jobs that pay higher wages. What we need to do is remember that for these anti-poverty programs, they can’t only be some punitive, work-only approach, they have to also allow for education.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson used his State of the Union address to put an end - or vow to put an end - to poverty and unemployment.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED ADDRESS)
PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: And this administration, today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.
HOBSON: To that end, the government established many social programs to give low-income Americans a helping hand. Well, today, more than 46 million Americans still live below the poverty line, with the poorest states almost entirely in the South. Mississippi was the poorest state back in 1964 just as it is today. So we decided to check in with Carol Burnett, executive director of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative, who joins me now from Jackson, Mississippi. Carol, welcome to HERE AND NOW.
CAROL BURNETT: Thank you.
HOBSON: Well, why is that? Why is Mississippi, both then and now, the poorest state in the country?
BURNETT: I can give you a review that extremely disproportionate and harmful. Racial inequity is in the poverty statistics. And you look at what I believe to be true, which is that we know how to reduce poverty, but we refused to do so. I think that you have to conclude that racism is at the root of that explanation.
HOBSON: Racism. And that - you that based on your work with people who are in poverty, do you think that's the main reason in Mississippi?
BURNETT: Well, I think that in my work, I've been working on anti-poverty issues in Mississippi with women and children for 30 years. And I think I would have to say that the one program that I think has been most effective in reducing poverty is the Child Care Subsidy Program that helps low-income women pay the cost of child care so that the mom can go to work.
HOBSON: Because in your state, women are the head of the household for many of the families that are in poverty, right? It's not a two-parent household. It's a single mom.
BURNETT: Yes, that's right. In fact, Mississippi's poor children are concentrated in single-mother households. Seventy-six percent of Mississippi's poor children live with a single mom, and those are moms who are working. Those moms are working in jobs even though they have the same graduation rates or better graduation rates as men. They're still earning less than men at every professional level, in every job sector, and they're concentrated in low-wage work. Eight out of the 10 minimum-wage earners in Mississippi are women.
So these are the moms who are raising children and who need child care. And the Child Care Subsidy Program is a hugely beneficial assistance so that it reduces their child-care cost dramatically. If you're a minimum-wage single mom and you have a child, even if you're working full time, your wage still leave you below poverty.
HOBSON: Yeah. We should say the minimum wage in Mississippi is $7.25 an hour, which means that if you are working full time, you're only going to make $15,000 a year.
BURNETT: That's right. And that is below the federally set poverty level for a family of two. And that wage is the wage that a mom has to use to pay the cost of her family basic needs. And so when you get a child care subsidy - I mean, just for that mom. Let's take her as an example. In Mississippi, if she had to buy it by herself, she'd have to pay about $4,000 a year for child care. But if she gets child care assistance through the subsidy program, that cost reduces to about $700 a year. So you see, it makes an enormous difference. It's a huge work support for low-wage earning workers.
HOBSON: Well, what do you think the impact has been of the war on poverty and the safety net that was set up there? Because if you look at the numbers, there are two different sets of numbers that people are looking at. One says, nationally, that the poverty rate has fallen from 19 percent in 1964 to 15 percent in 2012. That's from the Census Bureau. But then some researchers at Columbia said, well, in fact, it has been better than that. That in 1967, it was 26 percent poverty rate down to 16 percent in 2012. But what's your thought on what the war on poverty has done in Mississippi?
BURNETT: I mean, the war on poverty made a hugely positive difference on the state of Mississippi. When you remember what life was like in the state in 1965, there's no question that we've moved forward, that we've made progress on issues of race. We've made progress in anti-poverty programs. There are some new anti-poverty programs that Mississippi benefits from that weren't part of the war on poverty. But we still have a very long way to go.
HOBSON: Well, what are the big obstacles? What would you like to see done now that's not being done that would help, in your view, reduce the poverty rate?
BURNETT: I think that with the poverty programs, you know, too many times, we have policies that are created based on myths. One big example of that is the myth that the poor are not working. In fact, we've seen - I've seen in my work that low-income parents are working. It's just that their work isn't paying enough to help them meet their family's basic needs and create opportunities that allow them to climb out of poverty.
I mean, we have one example of a mom who got the child care subsidy, was working, had children and was going to college, which is an incredibly ambitious set of things to be doing all at one time. She graduated from college and opened her own business. I mean, that's a story that could be replicated many times over of the examples of how a program like the Child Care Subsidy Program is a huge success for families, and yet we have not invested adequately so that enough people who need it can take advantage.
HOBSON: Well - but also, a lot of people look more specifically at education, and that that is the number one way to get people out of poverty. You haven't mentioned that specifically here today, and I wonder why.
BURNETT: Well, education is important. All of the research shows that the higher level of education you have, the less likely it is that you'll be in poverty. And that is a very important strategy also for moving families out of poverty. I just remember, for example, back when we got our 1996 welfare reform program, we forced welfare recipients into work. My organization was offering an adult literacy program at that point. Those adults were forced out of basic literacy classes into the workforce by that welfare reform change.
And at that time, our governor here said that he thought the only thing welfare recipients needed to learn was how to set an alarm clock. So that kind of attitude that's so punitive and based in the myths about who poor people are and what needs to happen to force them to go to work, that is how you get outcomes that don't take you to a strategy that's really effective, and one that's going to address the needs that people really have.
HOBSON: Carol Burnett is executive director of the Mississippi Low-Income Child Care Initiative. Carol, thanks so much for joining us today.
BURNETT: Thanks for having me.
HOBSON: And, listeners, you can weigh in, as well. Just go to hereandnow.org and let us know what you think the war on poverty has accomplished 50 years later. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.