Blinding snow and frigid temperatures have a way of bringing us back to basics. Just days into the new year, the arrival of a major winter storm reminds us of the small pleasures of hearty food, warm clothing, a heated home — and of those who lack even those.
Almost eleven per cent of Vineyard residents have incomes that fall below the federal poverty line, a threshold that would suggest a family of four that earns more than $23,550 per year is doing okay. Just maybe, if your house is paid off. Just maybe, if you don’t live on an Island where gas prices are well over four dollars a gallon.
Helping people out of poverty seems to have lost the urgency it had fifty years ago this month when President Lyndon Johnson declared war against it, introducing a wide-ranging set of social welfare programs designed to lower the national poverty rate, then about nineteen per cent. A key piece of Johnson’s vision for a Great Society, the War on Poverty introduced such programs as VISTA, Head Start and Medicare, expanded Social Security and food stamps and sought to rebuild the nation’s inner cities.
It was an ambitious, expensive effort, and one that over time came under increasing criticism as some suggested it created a welfare state that encouraged a culture of dependence. A bellwether of the nation’s evolving view toward poverty came in 1996 with the signing by another Democratic president, Bill Clinton, of legislation to roll back welfare programs called “the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Act.”
Today, the national poverty rate is just under fifteen per cent, but with an increase in population there are over ten million more people in poverty than there were in 1964. We may be a nation divided on the causes of poverty and how best to help those in need but there is something about the cold that makes philosophical differences seem foolishly abstract. On an Island reputed to be a playground for the rich and famous there are some two hundred officially impoverished and many more lacking adequate food, shelter and warmth. For 2014, let’s declare a new war on poverty here at home, one that pledges that no one on this Island of plenty should suffer, no matter the cause.