Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B Johnson’s 1964 State of the Union address where he made a proclamation to commit to end poverty in our rich nation. Nationally, there has been a huge and beautiful focus on the anniversary. Despite the political divisions and tense partisan discussions on how to proceed in poverty reduction, I heard many reports on the radio, read newspaper coverage, and saw chatter all day on social channels about where we stand. I was floored by the statistics. I’d not, unfortunately, ever before spent time thinking about Johnson’s proclamation and the line in the sand created by his words.

After his proclamation, the country went to work creating Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start (promoting school readiness through social, nutritional, developmental support for children from birth to age 5), food stamp programs, and Job Corps. Since 1965, Head Start alone has served more than 30 million children and set precedent for contemporary thinking on early education and consortiums today like Thrive by Five. Much of the media coverage yesterday focused on the profound progress we’ve made helping Americans quit or reduce cigarette smoking with the Surgeon General’s first Report on Smoking and Health. Still, nearly 1 in 5 Americans (18%) smoke in a country that has proven cigarettes to be the #1 leading cause of preventable death. Dr Thomas Frieden wrote in JAMA yesterday, “Tobacco is, quite simply, in a league of its own in terms of the sheer numbers and varieties of ways it kills and maims people.”

Statistics About Poverty:

  • The poverty rate has fallen from 19% to 15% in the last 50 years. Yet more than 1 in 5 children in the United States grow up poor.
  • 2012 US Census data confirmed the nation’s official poverty rate is 15 percent, which represents 46.5 million people living at or below the poverty line. Forty-six million Americans live in homes where as a NYT reporter wrote, “the government considers their income scarcely adequate.” To put that in perspective know that median household income in the United States in 2012 was $51,017, while the poverty rate in 2012 was defined at or below $23,050 annually for a family of four.
  • For more information specifically about the health and conditions children grow up in where you live, look up information by state from Kids Count thanks to the Annie E Casey Foundation.

From my vantage point I would assume President Johnson would be pleased with progress but somewhat humiliated with the vast ongoing challenge we face to share resources and opportunity today.

I’m unsure what useful advice I have to share about what each of us can do today to reduce poverty. A nice list, “12 Things You Can Do To Fight Poverty” from Greg Kaufman, may be useful, and although some are dated (it was written in May), many of the 12 things require a vote (i.e. supporting a raise in minimum the wage), a few jumped out for me (visiting a shelter, supporting paid family leave). Here’s a list of 8 TED talks on the Quest to End Poverty. The AAP has prioritized a 2013-14 strategic plan to help pediatricians around the US reduce poverty and support children and families in need.

It’s clear that we are all responsible for thinking about how we can serve our nation and reduce the suffering of those without enough food, shelter, love, health care, and opportunity. As I’ve been thinking on the 50th anniversary the last 24 hours, nothing touched me like an email (I was forwarded this morning from a pediatric colleague) written by Dr Howard Frumkin, dean of the University of Washington School of Public Health. He showcased the historical timeline, put into perspective the hard work of public health workers, and noted successes of public health researchers. He showcased successes and ongoing challenges, he spoke of the work to reframe the “habit of smoking” into the public understanding that smoking is an addiction. Alarmingly, in 1964 as many as 43% of Americans were smoking. The email was earnest and optimistic. He also said this:

But we should not for a moment be complacent.  Nearly 50 million Americans remain poor.  Among them, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty, are 16 million children—22 percent of all children… Racial and ethnic disparities persist; in 2012, 29.2 percent of African American children lived in poverty, almost three times higher than the poverty level among white children.  These conditions have dreadful impacts on health and well-being.  We have much to do.

I’m mesmerized not only by the work of these giants in front of us but by the tireless work of millions in the public health, education, and service fields today. There is an enormous debt we owe those who fight for the poor and in the myriad of ways our fellow citizens work to create opportunity for us all. In minimum, we can be more thoughtful creating opportunity and support for those who nurture, feed, heal, educate, and advance our future via care for our children in our everyday lives.