Poverty And Not Knowing Your Neighbor Are Connected, Expert Says It's been 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty. Host Michel Martin speaks with Anne Mosle, of the Aspen Institute, about how much has changed since then and if the battle needs a new plan of attack.
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Poverty And Not Knowing Your Neighbor Are Connected, Expert Says

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Poverty And Not Knowing Your Neighbor Are Connected, Expert Says

Poverty And Not Knowing Your Neighbor Are Connected, Expert Says

It's been 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty. Host Michel Martin speaks with Anne Mosle, of the Aspen Institute, about how much has changed since then and if the battle needs a new plan of attack.

Poverty And Not Knowing Your Neighbor Are Connected, Expert Says

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/260757605/260757606" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We start the program today with reflections on money, speaking broadly. In a few minutes, we'll talk about some myths and facts about credit. Consumer columnist Sheryl Harris will help us clear up some confusion over what exactly helps and hurts your credit. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we take on the issue of poverty, which we've come to see as far more than a lack of money. It's been exactly 50 years since President Lyndon Baines Johnson told the nation about his ambitious plans to fight this persistent enemy.


LYNDON B. JOHNSON: This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.

MARTIN: Since President Johnson made that speech, the rate of poverty has fallen, but only slightly. And whether it's fallen enough, whether the various strategies the country has employed have been the right ones - those are still a matter of debate as is the way forward. So we, along with our colleagues at other NPR programs, will be asking those questions in the weeks and months ahead. We're going to start today by hearing perspective from Anne Mosle. She is the executive director for Ascend. That's a part of the research organization, The Aspen Institute. And her group focuses its attention on poverty in families. Anne Mosle, welcome to program. Thanks so much for joining us.

ANNE MOSLE: Thank you, Michel. It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: You know, it's been 50 years since President Johnson's famous was on poverty speech, but the poverty rate - and of course everybody always argues about these numbers - but the poverty rate, using the figures that the government uses, has only fallen a few percentage points since then - from 19 percent to 15 percent today. And why do you think that is?

MOSLE: Well, I think there's two aspects to it, but the poverty rate has not - we have not made the dent that we would like. I think there's been some successes. I think, clearly, seniors are doing a lot better than they were before.

We've made some real progress on that, and whether it's big programs like Social Security that we can say thank you to that. The area where I think we really have to pay attention to is really the growth of children growing up in low-income families. We have a real problem right now with almost half of our children are growing up in low-income families. And from that really kind of aspirational moment 50 years ago, to be where we are today knowing what we know, I think it's a big rallying call.

MARTIN: Is the way we think about poverty as a country - I'm thinking mainly from a leadership - well, there's two aspects of it - there's the way leaders think about it, there's the way the public thinks about it - but is the way we think about poverty, has that changed in the 50 years since that speech?

MOSLE: Yeah, I think - Michel, that's a great question. I think how we think about and go about attacking poverty has changed. I think, one, we have learned some lessons that, absolutely essential to the answer, is education. Education is at the forefront. And so how we think about one of the biggest successes of the war on poverty was Head Start 'cause Head Start got the government and got communities and got families thinking about the importance of investing early in children - all children. Another lesson that we've learned -and this I would say is somewhat of a success on the war on poverty - has been the soaring rate of college graduation.

MARTIN: And that was not the case 50 years ago?

MOSLE: I think it has changed, and it's gotten smarter. There were - basically people thought education is going to be the answer. We've all known that, but with the increase competition of today's economy, it's just nonnegotiable. Another area that we've seen changes is one of our recent research findings showed us that in the past - and this is definitely - when you look back to the 1950s, there was a very strong sense of neighborhood.

People looked out for one another across the street. When we did our research with focus groups - our focus groups with low-income mothers and fathers, they don't know their neighbor across the street. There are very strong ties that are among a few friends and family. It's a small circle. It's a narrow set. It's not as wide. And so how people also think about those informal networks, not just the policies or the education, that the world has changed, and I think we need to update with it.

MARTIN: Your work focuses specifically on a two-generation approach to dealing with poverty. Can you explain in practical terms what that means and how that fits into the way you're saying policymakers or thinkers think about poverty today?

MOSLE: Yeah. I know, and that's a great question. I think one of the big, best of intentions with all the folks in the policy positions is to attack problems in a very focused way. One of the collateral issues has been - is our policies have gotten very siloed. So at the heart of a two-generation approach, it's actually quite simple. It's saying if we want families to thrive, we need to think about both the needs and the strengths of children together.

And what that means is when we think, for example, like, kind of what are the core levers to making that happen? We think about education, kind of key economic supports, social capital and health. So just take education. Many times, I spend a lot of time with low-income mothers. Forefront on their mind is financial and sort of economic stability. Can we stay in our same home? Are we making enough paycheck to paycheck, and is my child getting a good education? For her to move up the ladder to the next job, her access to education, as well as strong early education for her child - those should go together.

MARTIN: But that seems - that would just seem like common sense. You're saying that the existing programs and the existing kind of framework doesn't really do that. I mean, that just seems like common sense. Like, it's hard for a sick mother to raise a healthy child. It's hard for a mother with limited education to kind of inspire or support her child academically. So you kind of need to do both and. That would seem like common sense.

MOSLE: It would see like common sense, and actually that's what my children say everyday. They're sort of like, you get paid to work on this. But it's sort of the dove factor. However - so let me give you a story. So in Tulsa, Oklahoma, there is a sort of Head Start program that had been working saying, if we want to solve poverty in Tulsa - they're working with a network of Head Starts across the city. They focus like a laser beam on giving that child everything that he or she needed.

They realized they were only going to go so far if they did not connect with the family and the parent. So they said, if that parent is motivated and wants to get a job but is not connected to an economy or to an opportunity, how do we get them there? So they need an education. They need some training. So say that parent is working on sort of a, you know, cashier job or sort of maybe a minimum-wage job - going to Tulsa Tech, their community college, just one parent going into the community college system - for anybody who's ever done that, classes are all - the schedule is sort of at all points of the day. There's a need to sort of get some remedial education.

So what they did in Tulsa - just putting this two-generation approach to life - they said, we're going to keep working with the students. We're going to get a group of the mothers and fathers that are interested in pursuing a career in health care, which is a growing part of the economy there, and we're going to work to get them trained. They created a partnership with the local community college so they can buy a block of classes so that these parents could both do - get educated and get trained for a real job, while also being a good parent and while also being able to maintain their sort of other job while they did this.

MARTIN: Well, that leads me to a question which I have, which is the question which we started with. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about where the war on poverty stands now and different ways of dealing with it. My guest is Anne Mosle, executive director of Ascend. That's a project of The Aspen Institute - a think tank. And her group addresses poverty across generations. We started our conversation by asking why is it that the poverty rate really has not dropped very much since Lyndon Johnson's time, at least according to government figures - the figures that the government uses, from 19 percent then to 15 percent now. What I'm hearing you say is that all this infrastructure around addressing poverty really hasn't caught up with the way the world is lived now.

MOSLE: Exactly.

MARTIN: Is that about it?

MOSLE: I think I couldn't agree more. How do we think about it? We've got great stuff to build upon, but how do we get a 21st century approach to what we're doing? We need the right leadership. We need to think about working across silos. And I think there's a lot of, how do we really get to connecting with families? There's a lot of good intention coming from programs or policies. Are they really connected to the dynamics of families?

MARTIN: Of the way the world is now. Oh, speaking of the way the world is now, according to 2012 census numbers, a third of single female-headed households live in poverty. You know, that's one of the family changes that has occurred - family-style changes that has occurred since Lyndon Johnson's time. There are those who argue that the real issue is not kind of the structure of programs or the structure of work, it's the structure of families.

And if there were not this many single female-headed households, who across racial groups, are much more likely to be poor - you know, white single female-headed households, as quiet as it's kept, are as likely to be poor as households headed by women of other ethnic groups - that that's really the big driver of the continuation of poverty, is that family breakdown. What's your perspective on that?

MOSLE: A couple thoughts on that. First, I think it's really important for us, when we think about if we're really going to attack poverty, it's not on the individual. It's not going to come out of a program. Of all the conversations I've had with families out there, no one is out there - I want the greatest program. They want to have the kind of self-sufficiency and independence that we all want.


MOSLE: So as we're thinking about sort of the growth of women-headed families, I think one of the things that we can really pull upon is we've seen the importance and the power of investing in women. We've see that internationally. We've seen that globally. While there are some support programs out there that get to mothers, I actually think it would be very exciting and have some profound results to be even more intentional in those investments.

There's a lot of women concentrated in low-wage jobs or dead-end jobs. How do we think about getting them onto paths where it's nontraditional jobs, whether it's security, police, construction, different forms of specialized manufacturing? In the U.S., we do have a skills gap for higher-paying jobs. What if we were to track mothers and put them on a path for a stronger job at the same time that you're supporting their children?

MARTIN: I want to conclude our conversation today with kind of where we started, which was with President Lyndon Johnson. I mean, one of the points that you made is that he put the stature - his personal stature and the weight of his office behind this as a national goal. He identified this as a national goal. Does this country still retain that as a goal? Do you feel that the national leadership of the United States at this point in our history is focused on this?

MOSLE: I think they are getting focused. You're hearing more conversations both about poverty and about inequality. And I think this is one other profound shift from where we were 50 years ago. We had the issue of poverty, helping everybody move up the economic ladder. At the same time - and this gives me hope, but I think we have to get even more tenacious in our strategies - we have some of, still, the highest concentrations of wealth.

And so I think to meet this challenge, we need the full political leadership of the government. However, at the same time, I think we really need to engage business. And we need to engage people as citizens. And I think people still want to be part of something larger and bigger and tap that aspiration from about 50 years ago. They don't always know how. It is a fast-moving world. It is a competitive world. It is a complicated world. But the simplicity of, can we engage with families? Can we think about engaging with mothers and fathers and children together in a more holistic way? I think people want to be part of that. We have to give them a clear roadmap and strategy for that.

MARTIN: That was Anne Mosle. She is the executive director of Ascend, as well as the vice president of The Aspen Institute, with us from our studios in Washington, D.C. Anne Mosle, thanks so much for joining us.

MOSLE: Thanks so much, Michel, for having me.

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