President and CEO Audra Wilson reflects on our history and solutions to advance our shared mission
February 8, 2024
If we work better together, we can build a better future where all communities and families thrive. That was the recurring theme at our 2024 Poverty Summit, where we convened hundreds of leaders, supporters, and concerned citizens committed to ending poverty.
Our summit kicked off with a keynote by Matthew Desmond, author of Poverty, by America and Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. There also were three panel discussions on topics important to justice work: housing as a human right, family and community-based supports for children, and entrepreneurism as a tool to enable economic mobility. I still feel inspired by the powerful insights, stories, and sense of community.
The timing of our January 18 event was intentional. We commemorated the 60th anniversary of the War on Poverty and paid tribute to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Our summit concluded our yearlong event series, Civil Rights at a Crossroads: Igniting Activism for Racial and Economic Justice, held in partnership with the Sargent Shriver Peace Institute.
As a national organization born out of the War on Poverty, the Shriver Center on Poverty Law leads the fight for economic and racial justice by challenging the powerful, shaping policy, and building solutions that last. In a nutshell, we change rules to change lives. We’re fighting for a future free from poverty — and free from racism — because none of us are free until all of us are free.
Our organization’s founder, Sargent Shriver, or Sarge as we call him, was a pivotal leader in the War on Poverty. As director of the Office of Economic Opportunity, he pioneered anti-poverty programs that still exist today, including Head Start, Job Corps, and Volunteers in Service to America (now known as AmeriCorps VISTA). Sarge also knew that discrimination and racism play a major role in keeping people mired in poverty.
Nearly 20 percent of Americans were living in poverty when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the War on Poverty on January 8, 1964. He introduced monumental policy changes that sought to end poverty in the U.S., starting with passage of the Economic Opportunity Act. This coincided with other significant legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. By the 1970s, we saw passage of the earned income tax credit, which has expanded multiple times with wide bipartisan support, and of the child tax credit.
Dr. King’s tireless advocacy was as much a motivation for the declaration of the War on Poverty. Although Dr. King believed that desegregation and the right to vote were essential, he knew that African Americans and other people of color could never enjoy full citizenship without economic security. He called for an economic bill of rights and guaranteed income for all. And he, along with other key figures from the March on Washington, returned to the White House in 1965 and 1966 to outline a Freedom Budget for All Americans, a plan with a bold vision for wiping out poverty.
In the creation of this document, civil rights activist A. Phillip Randolph declared: “We meet on a common ground of determination that in this, the richest and most productive society ever known to man, the scourge of poverty can and must be abolished — not in some distant future, not in this generation, but in the next 10 years!”
As we stand here 60 years later, we have yet to achieve this ambitious goal. But this is exactly the audacity we need to end poverty. With that context, here are my top three takeaways that I shared with summit attendees.
We’ve made a lot of progress in the War on Poverty. And we still have a lot more progress to make.
Without a doubt, there has been meaningful progress. The overall poverty rate has fallen. Since the mid-1960s, the average income among the poorest fifth of Americans has risen significantly, and severe child malnutrition has largely disappeared. And today, the U.S. has a much stronger safety net than we had in the past.
But despite these milestones, we can’t celebrate victory. Instead, 60 years later, poverty and hardship remain high, with millions of Americans having trouble putting food on the table and keeping a roof over their heads. In Chicago alone, more than 450,000 people live below the poverty line — that’s one in seven among our neighbors, friends, and family members. And it’s disheartening to see the blatant overrepresentation of people of color in poverty: 17.1% of African Americans, 16.8% of Latinos, and nearly 25% of indigenous people.
In the fight for economic and racial justice, finding the will to make lasting change is the challenge, rather than a shortage of solutions. Our struggles as a society are intimately connected, and we must truly work together to create a better world.
We know what works: Smart, targeted investments in communities and people can be transformational.
The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, known as the GI Bill, provided sweeping benefits for World War II veterans, including college tuition, low-cost home loans, and unemployment insurance. The GI Bill is widely credited to creating the white American middle class. But because the bill deliberately allowed states to allocate the money instead of the federal government, Black veterans were left behind. The bill ended up widening already existing gaps in wealth and education between white and Black Americans.
Policies and laws can either create opportunity and prosperity, or perpetuate poverty and racial inequity. Through advocacy, the Shriver Center works to change the rules to change lives. We strive to dismantle systems that hold people back as well as reframe narratives that minimize the link between race and poverty. We center people of color because of the harm inflicted on them from centuries of discrimination. And the rules we’re changing have a curb-cut effect: Everyone benefits when we remove barriers for the most burdened group.
Poverty is a policy choice — and we can make different choices.
We know how to solve the problems that keep people in poverty. If you give people cash, they’ll spend it on things for their family. If you provide health care benefits to immigrants, you end the suffering of thousands. If you expand the child tax credit, millions of children escape poverty — the nation’s child poverty rate dropped by half in 2021. And here’s some good news: Lawmakers recently agreed to a roughly $80 billion deal to expand the federal child tax credit. If this becomes law, about 16 million kids from low-income families will be better off.
With the right choices, we can build a more just future. We can invest in communities and people. We can help children and families achieve economic mobility. We can have a nation where everyone has safe, stable, affordable housing; quality health care and outcomes; good-paying jobs with good benefits; and more. That’s a future worth fighting for.
As we look to the next 60 years, every single person in America, regardless of income, race, or any other circumstance, should be able to achieve their definition of success. Our ability as advocates to advance justice is dependent on our own humanity and truth. Every day, my team and I work to create real change and opportunity for people. And as a parent, I stay in this fight for my daughter, Ava. Our focus on the future matters more than ever, especially ahead of an important U.S. election cycle.
Our shared mission is possible when we transform systems and break down barriers. This is going to take harder work, more innovative strategies, deeper investments, and unwavering dedication. Fortunately, the Shriver Center has a new strategic framework, which we are launching this spring. This roadmap for the future of our work will provide key initiatives and actions to guide our efforts at the intersection of race and poverty.
I hope you take some time to reflect, recharge, and recommit to actions that align with our rallying cry this year: Changing Rules, Changing Lives. With communities leading the way, we can forge ahead together for our collective liberation.