Should the term ‘war on poverty’ be dropped?

Michael Gordon, warehouse and procurement manager for a furniture bank run by Caritas, an agency providing services to homeless people in Richmond, Va., is shown in January. The program is one of thousands started  during the last 50 years in the country's renewed push to end poverty. (CNS/Jay Paul)

Michael Gordon, warehouse and procurement manager for a furniture bank run by Caritas, an agency providing services to homeless people in Richmond, Va., is shown in January. The program is one of thousands started during the last 50 years in the country’s renewed push to end poverty. (CNS/Jay Paul)

This week’s National Poverty Summit got a lot of people thinking about the language used when referring to people living in poverty.

New language is needed to build broader support to help people and families on their path to build a stable life, many of the 120 attendees agreed.

But Steven Bresnahan, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minn., did not want the discussion to stop there.

Near the end of the April 2 summit convened by Catholic Charities USA, Bresnahan asked the group if the term “war on poverty” was appropriate.

“Now think of the war in Vietnam, the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq,” Bresnahan said deliberately and carefully.

“We’re taking a term at the time, when President (Lyndon) Johnson (in 1964) declared the ‘war on poverty,’ that was probably appropriate,” he continued. “But is that what we want to do to beat poverty? We want to overwhelm the hoards? We want to roll in with massive power? Think of all of those illustrations.”

Bresnahan afterward told Catholic News Service the same could be said about how social service workers are “fighting” poverty and working “on the front lines” and “in the trenches.”

The Catholic Charities executive didn’t expect an answer. He said was simply raising a question for people to consider.

“We’ve been talking about reframing and what language we use and it just struck me that the word ‘war’ implies that you settle something with violence and with having greater power,” Bresnahan explained. “If the other side doesn’t agree with you, part of the game of war is making them out to be evil so you can feel better.

“So that’s the language we’re using when we want to build relationships and bring about fundamental change in the country? It’s the wrong, wrong idea in my mind.”

Bresnahan had no immediate alternative. But he offered an idea from which a new image can be developed: the Marshall Plan under which Europe was rebuilt after World War II to ensure the peace, political stability and a healthy world economy. “We rebuilt Europe and we let Europe be themselves. So we walked with them, didn’t we?

“We need another word and I don’t know what it is.”

He then referenced Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”) as a place to start.

“The war on poverty is an old term. It’s time to get a new one.”

6 Responses

  1. Well, it’s the wrong phrase simply because no one has ever “won” that war. Poverty will always be around just as sure as the wealthy will always be around. But I’m certainly not advocating that those who are better off not help those in need. It was just a bad way to frame this call to action.

  2. Bresnahan is correct in articulating these conflict-oriented problems with this language, and the images it creates that leads to a lack of wider support. I would add that whenever we use the phrase “war on” this or “war on” that, it’s a sham to begin with, designed for public narrative. It entices our fight-or-flight response; it may have at one time been sincerely-used, but we’ve gotten to a point in our public discourse where the great majority of everything said for the sake of creating public narrative is hot air. War on drugs? What war. We never actually engaged in any such thing. That’s why we’re losing it.

  3. To the extent the US went to war over poverty, I suggest it has been won. The standard of living for even the “poorest” of our citizens is high compared to the level of poverty in South and Central America. Poverty programs address all aspects of basic needs. The challenge is not material goods, but the breakdown in social structure and self-discipline that exist due to the breakdown of the family and the rise in drug use. Material goods and social welfare programs will not cure these issues.

  4. Tim, you are right on the button! When the “war on poverty” began 5% of children were born out of wedlock. Today numbers exceed 60% in groups considered most vulnerable and 40% overall. Children born into such circumstances are far more likely to drop out of school, wind up in the criminal justice system and perpetuate these circumstances in the next generation. Material goods and social welfare programs will not cure these problems. Nor will the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate.

  5. We should have a contest for a new term for war on poverty! There are many ways to describe the different kinds of poverty we are addressing. May I suggest “helping to eliminate poverty” for another term?

  6. It can be rightly concluded, based on the actions of Congress over the past half century, that the “war on poverty” wasn’t about poverty at all but about enlarging the government payroll of unionized employees who contribute to the Democrat Party campaigns, willingly or not.

    Congress refuses to evaluate “poverty” programs and cancel ineffective ones, instead mandating increases in funding in each budget. When in power, the GOP has done nothing to correct this.

    Intergenerational poverty and the percentage of extramarital births has increased over this time, as has the rise in foodstamp use.

    And where has the American hierarchy been all this time, given this information which is known to anybody tuning in certain tv and radio programs?

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