Established in 1982 at LaGuardia Community College/ CUNY with a mission to collect, preserve, and make available primary materials documenting the social and political history of New York City. We hold nearly 5,000 cubic feet of archival records and 3,200 reels of microfilm with almost 100,000 photographs and 2,000,000 documents available on our website.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

March on Washington and the War on Poverty: 50 Years Later

Mrs. Coretta Scott King, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mayor Robert F. Wagner, 1964

Steven A. Levine
Coordinator for Educational Programs

After returning from the March on Washington this weekend, I have been reading people’s reminiscences and analyses of the March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom 50 years ago today.  One thing is clear: the goals of the March were not only to end legal apartheid in the United States, but to create as the Marchers demanded “that every person in this nation, black or white, be given training and work with dignity to defeat unemployment and automation.”  Education historian Diane Ravitch recalled in her blog that, “For that brief few hours in time, the theory was reality, and we knew that change was coming, that it was inevitable. The only question was not whether it would happen, but when.”  She then contrasted that moment to the present when “Much has changed, but not enough. Barack Obama is President, but poverty among people of color remains scandalously high and racial segregation is no longer treated as outrageous.”

Sadly our commitment as a nation and a city to tackling segregation and poverty have nearly vanished in the last 50 years.  Poverty in New York City has increased from 18.4% in 2008 to 20.1% in 2011, reflecting national trends, while President Obama and other politicians constantly reference the middle class and rarely mention the poor in their speeches.

In contrast, Mayor Robert F. Wagner’s speeches in the 1960s reflected a commitment to combating poverty unlikely to be uttered by a presidential candidate today.  Speaking at the United Neighborhood Houses on December 3, 1964, he laid out a long term commitment to New York’s anti-poverty programs,

"I would rather move slowly and build a firm foundation for action, bearing in mind the long-range and sustained nature of the effort that will be required . . . not just the semblance of action, but truly to prevail in the war against poverty, which means also to prevail in the war against discrimination and disadvantage."

Unfortunately, the war in Vietnam sidelined the War on Poverty and the Wagner’s “firm foundation” never received the necessary federal resources.  With the election of Richard Nixon in 1968, the War on Poverty ended and the 1975 fiscal crisis led to a massive austerity in New York City. 

What is unconscionable is that few of our politicians even acknowledge the widespread poverty existing in our society today and that our nation has spent the last ten years spending hundreds of billions of dollars fighting unnecessary wars leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people at home and abroad instead of expending these resources at home on education, health care and job creation.  Our politicians have always found it possible to open the nation’s checkbook to fight wars, but tell the poor that our nation cannot afford the necessary resources to change their circumstances.