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Policy: Entitlements

'War on Poverty' turned poor folks into victims

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Opinion,Gregory Kane,Columnists,Entitlements,Lyndon B. Johnson,Race and Diversity,Poverty

I turned on several newscasts Wednesday and learned that day was the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson declaring a “War on Poverty” in America.

That would have been Jan. 8, 1964, a time when my mother and her six kids were indeed poor. But my Mom — God rest her soul — started waging her own war on poverty long before Johnson launched his.

My mother was born into poverty in 1922. She lived in those Depression years that were tough on all Americans. Black Americans, because of Jim Crow and segregation, had it even rougher.

She had only made it to the eighth grade when her mother, Helen Floyd, suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be confined to an institution. The safety net for poor folks then wasn’t what it was today; my mother and her siblings had to fend for themselves.

With only an eighth-grade education, Mom had to take whatever job a poor, uneducated black woman of that era could get. For years, she worked in a laundromat, pressing clothes on a steam machine.

By 1964, she was still working as a laundress. But she had also decided to get her graduate equivalency diploma.

I still remember her getting home from work and hitting the books. I even had to help her out with algebra, since I was kind of good at math in those days.

Once Mom got her GED, she took an exam for a job at Social Security. It wasn’t long after Johnson declared his war on poverty that Mom kissed her laundry days goodbye forever and started working for the federal government.

A better job with higher pay meant Mom could eventually buy a house and become a homeowner, as opposed to being the renter she had been all her life.

Ruth Katherine Floyd’s idea of a “war on poverty” was to work to get out of poverty. She sure as heck didn’t wait around for Lyndon Johnson and liberal politicians to rescue her and her six children.

That’s not meant to disparage or demean those still living in poverty today, even though liberals demean poor folks, especially poor black folks, every day.

Before 1964, poverty was an economic condition; those living in it were expected, indeed encouraged, to work their way out of it.

After 1964, after Johnson declared his “War on Poverty,” liberals did to poor folks, especially poor black folks, the worst thing they could have done to us.

They made us victims.

As victims, we weren’t expected, indeed not encouraged, to act responsibly. We could do no wrong, and woe betide the person who said anything bad about us.

Just ask Bill Cosby. Back in 2004, Cosby told the truth: that there are perhaps millions of black Americans “not holding up their end of the deal” when it comes to educating their children.

Reaction was swift and harsh. Ten years later, there are people who still hate Cosby for making that remark.

Years ago I wrote a column in which I dared suggest that the black parents of any kid wearing a $200 pair of sneakers but had not one book in their house had no business complaining about how racist the education system is.

You’d have thought I’d gunned down Santa Claus at high noon on a sunny day. I got emails and letters, mostly with this theme: How dare I criticize poor black folks?

I dared because I came from a poor black family, one that struggled to get out of poverty and eventually did so.

I dared because my mother — on her laundress salary, mind you — somehow managed to buy her children a set of much-needed encyclopedias.

I dared because I know that we don’t help poor folks, especially poor black folks, by lowering our expectations of them.

GREGORY KANE, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated news and opinion journalist who has covered people and politics from Baltimore to the Sudan.

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