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In war on poverty, early gains and a long stalemate

LBJ launched a major national battle 40 years ago this week.

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Sam Nicholson is broke. Things could be worse - he's got his own bed to sleep in, and food stamps help. But the retired cabbie's teeth need to come out, he's got little hope of seeing a dentist soon, and a cold wind is whistling outside Raleigh's Morgan Street soup kitchen.

That's an actual cold wind, not a metaphorical one. Lately temperatures in Raleigh have been unusually low.

"Matters are only getting worse in this country," says Mr. Nicholson. "People are losing jobs and can't afford medical help or insurance." Forty years ago this week, President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared an unconditional war on poverty in America. Today that war is not over, and there's a question as to whether the US or poverty has the upper hand.

Big-screen TVs are blowing out the doors of retailers, but 34 million Americans still live below the poverty line. The US GDP is roaring ahead, but the nation still has the worst child-poverty rate in the industrialized world. Still, some in the front ranks say they haven't given up hope. This is one fight where there may be a certain kind of victory in the struggle.

"If the question is, 'Are we winning this war?' I'd say yes," says retired lawyer Bob Slaughter, who cooks and serves at Morgan Street. ""Every day that one of these folks doesn't have to go hungry, we're winning."

In his State of the Union address on Jan. 8, 1964, LBJ both proposed a legislative program and challenged the country. The legislative war on poverty was to be a multipoint program aimed at getting Washington, the states, and local authorities to work together. It included a massive expansion of the food-stamp program, job training, youth employment, and special aid for Appalachia, among other things. Hospital insurance for the elderly - today's Medicare - was part of the effort.


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