The last of the baby boomers hit the big 5-0 this year. That generation of Americans, born between 1946 and 1964, became wealthier, more active and more physically fit than any generation the country had seen to that point. Likely that explains why they (OK, we) tend to think of themselves as a special generation, different from what came before or after.
Baby boomers extend that special status to cultural innovations introduced during their youth. This year has seen a spate of 50th anniversaries of events that occurred in the last year of the pig in the demographic python. In 1964 the first Mustang rolled off an assembly line in Dearborn, Mich.; the Beatles arrived in America, propelling “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to the top of the singles charts; GI Joe was unveiled by the toymaker Hasbro (and the term “action figure” coined to distinguish it from the doll which, let’s face it, it is); Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady and Goldfinger premiered in movie theaters.
But there were other, darker forces at work in 1964. An apartheid-like system of racial oppression remained entrenched in the South. That summer three civil rights activists were murdered in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer movement to register black voters. The year before a Baptist church in Birmingham, Ala., was fire bombed, killing four young girls. In Congress, Southern legislators fiercely resisted attempts to dismantle segregation.
Just as destructive was the grinding poverty in which fully 19 percent of the country — about 36 million people — lived. Blacks were disproportionately impacted by poverty’s grim realities, but no race was immune. That became clear in 1962 when Michael Harrington published The Other America, a devastating expose which put the issue on the national agenda.
Unexpectedly it was a white U.S. president from the South who took on both racism and poverty. In 1964 Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and launched a massive initiative to eradicate poverty. It was a call to arms for justice and compassion.
Fifty years later, the country is far from claiming victory in the war to prevent poverty. After a dramatic drop in the late 1960s and ’70s, the poverty rate now stubbornly hovers at around 15 percent — only slightly down from 1964’s 19 percent — and impacts about 46 million people. The programs launched in the 1960s likely have prevented the rate from climbing higher. But in recent years most of the gains in the private economy have benefitted only those in top incomes. A burgeoning inequality in American society is complicating the poverty picture.
Baby boomers were the first American generation to grow up genuinely expecting the world to improve with time. For the poor — and especially for poor people of color — that hasn’t happened.
In exploring the topic for this issue’s cover story, we were keenly aware that evaluating Johnson’s campaign — indeed, poverty itself — remains contentious. There’s disagreement about the initiative’s impact, whether the arsenal of federal programs mobilized in the war should be expanded and even how to measure poverty.
There is, however, near unanimity that for disciples of Jesus, engaging the poor is a non-negotiable biblical mandate. If success is possible, it will start with that.
Here’s hoping that on some future anniversary of the war on poverty, a cover story won’t be relevant.
— Robert Dilday, Editor in Chief