One Woman’s Victory in the War on Poverty

Written by Bryce Covert

Rebecca Johnson of Barnesville, Minn., owns a home with her husband in a “nice little quiet town outside of Moorehead,” as she puts it, where she works as a supervisor at a community action agency that helps low-income people connect with programs they need. She has a Bachelor’s degree in social work and a Master’s in financial planning. And she has two children with “a third one due any day now.”

But things weren’t always so stable for her. She had a son at age 18, and even though she married the father, he had left her on her own with the baby by the time she was 20. At that point she was trying to get a college degree, work part-time, and raise her son. Things were “really, really tight.” So she pulled on nearly all of the programs that had been created by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty decades earlier. And the fabric of that social safety net helped support her while she worked to get where she is now. “Honestly I don’t think there’s any possible way that I could be in this stable position right now without having those programs available to me when I was a single mom,” she told ThinkProgress. Without them, her life would look very different. “I would probably be working at a very low paying job that doesn’t require a college degree,” she hypothesizes. “I definitely wouldn’t own a home. I’m very thankful.”

Head Start

While she went to school and her job, her son went to Head Start. “I never would have been able to afford preschool if Head Start wasn’t available,” she noted. But it wasn’t just a place for her son to be during the day. He had developmental issues that the Head Start teachers were able to recognize “that as a 20-year-old new mom I didn’t know how to identify.” She was able to get her son surgery, which alleviated the problems and he now attends school without special education support. “I can’t imagine what might have happened going forward into elementary school if he didn’t have qualified teachers at Head Start to identify” his issues, she said.

Since it was enacted during Johnson’s administration, Head Start has served more than 30 million children beyond Rebecca’s, according to a report from the Center for American Progress (CAP). Last year, 136,000 of the 1.1 million children enrolled in the program had disabilities like her son’s. More than 30,000 gained access to health insurance and 112,700 got dental care, while nearly 60,000 received immunizations.

Pell Grants

Rebecca received Pell Grants during her four years obtaining her Bachelor’s degree. “That allowed me to continue to work and go to school,” she said. College may have been much more difficult without them. Yet it was perhaps the most important thing to her. “Graduating…was my end game, my goal to get off of all of these programs and become totally self-sufficient,” she said.

Pell Grants were established in 1965 and now help 9.4 million students, two-thirds of whom come from families with incomes at or below 150 percent of the poverty line, or about $30,000 for a family of three. “Research shows that need-based grant aid,” such as Pell Grants, “increases college enrollment among low-and moderate-income students and reduces their likelihood of dropping out,” the CAP report notes. Many other low-income Americans have gotten degrees thanks to that aid.

Food Stamps

Rebecca also enrolled in food stamps. The extra money was vital to her and her son. “Because of that, I was able to provide good meals for my son, not just the cheapest of junk food,” she said. It enabled her to buy healthy food.

Food stamps have had a big impact on nutrition. After the first permanent program was passed in 1964, the percentage of low-income households with good diets rose from 37 percent to 50 percent by 1977. The current food stamp program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is also incredibly important to those who use it, lifting 5 million people out of poverty last year. Many of those are children, as over 70 percent of SNAP recipients live in families with children.


Rebecca and her son qualified for Medicaid during that time, meaning that they had access to medical care. “I didn’t just have to rely on emergency room visits,” she explained. “We were able to see doctors.” That was particularly important for her son’s issues.

After it was enacted in 1966, the program covered 4 million people. That number has risen to 62 million today, including 32 million children. It is also vital for those who need long-term care, which her son thankfully hasn’t needed, covering 5 million children and adults with disabilities.

But even while Rebecca relied on these programs, the safety net began to unravel a little. In her last year of college, the rules for eligibility changed for many programs, particularly childcare assistance. All of a sudden, the hours spent at school no longer counted toward the work requirements, forcing her to get a job working 32 hours a week while going to school full time. “I didn’t want to quit school or push back my graduation date,” she said, so she relied on her family to watch her son. “It was a really, really challenging year,” she remembered. While she was grateful for her family’s support, “it’s not the same as parenting and spending time with my kid.”

She also remembered how sharp the transition off the programs felt. The lost assistance “was not really equal to my increase in pay” once she finally got a job that paid well, she noted. It was “pretty brutal.” Even so, “it was a good feeling of accomplishment to not have any of those programs any more.”

Things may be worse for those who have come after her, however. In her work at the community action agency, she’s seen firsthand how some of these programs have been whittled away. Head Start got ravaged by sequestration cuts last year, which meant 57,000 children and their parents lost their slots in the program. Many lost transportation services to the classrooms, and the centers’ operating days were cut. Food stamp benefits were just reduced to about $1.40 per person per meal in November, and Congress is likely to reduce them again, if not enact cuts that are so severe they would kick millions out of the program altogether. The Affordable Care Act expanded Medicaid, with four million low-income Americans newly enrolled, but nearly half of the states have refused to participate in the expansion, leaving 5 million in a coverage gap without access to insurance.

These recent cuts, however, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the 50-year campaign conservatives have waged since the War on Poverty was first announced. Exploiting fears about the rising status of women and black people, they created an anti-welfare atmosphere in which the once-strong safety net Johnson enacted, which reduced poverty 42 percent within less than ten years, began to come undone.

This post was originally published in ThinkProgress

Photo Credit: Rebecca Johnson


Jim Ven
Jim Ven1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Donna Ferguson
Donna F4 years ago

ty for this important article

Mary B.
Mary B4 years ago

Safety net programs are the only thing that give any stability to our economic system or to our very culture. Jobs come and go, and the money to sustain things dissapear with them.People do not 'fall into poverty' unless they're born rich.The safety net needs to be come a platform to launch from when a young person leaves home,and a soft landing when the job ends.It must be funded directly from the treasury.If anybody still thinks our government really collects enough in taxes to cover everything it must fund in a country the size of ours, I suggest you look at the debt. Obviously it is not possible to collect more than is sent out when you're just pulling back in a small percentage.New money must be created all the time.We can't barrow it from another country because we can't pay it back unless we 'create' it. It's the way the game is played and untill there is the political will to insist on every one 18 on up be given a garenteed monthly income to manage, we will have those who will always be in poverty. We are all needy and greedy and frauds when our survival calls for it.

Nils Anders Lunde
PlsNoMessage se4 years ago


Janet Gibbon
Janet G4 years ago

Looking at some of the comments I can see the propaganda machine has been as busy in the US as the UK. Many times through history the poor have been blamed (at the time) for their position, though the study of history shows us the condition of mass poverty is always down to those making the legislation.
The present circumstances are mainly due to the New Free Economic policies of Reagan and Thatcher. The crisis that started in 2008 was a direct result. Though any policy that requires perfect knowledge of the future (I kid you not) was never really going to work! It should also be remembered that some political parties create higher unemployment (whilst vilifying the unemployed) as it pushes wages down (higher profits as prices don't come down) which in turn creates more working poor. Wages having been reducing in real terms (buyability) in the UK since 2002, long before the bubble burst.
If any meaningful solution is to be found uber greed needs to stop being disguised/misrepresented as success.

Diane C.
Past Member 4 years ago

I'm sorry to sound negative, but why do so many of these comments seem to be using this article as an excuse to re-assert their own beliefs in the efficacy (or non-efficacy) of these programs, characteristics of aid recipients, or heartlessness of those who oppose them?

Diane C.
Past Member 4 years ago

I'm happy for this woman's success, but saddened by the tone of some of these posts. It might help if such articles featured some statistics on the effectiveness of various anti-poverty programs.

Bartley Deason
Bartley Deason4 years ago

Kamia K. wrote:
"However, whenever one sees families with two, three and four generations on the same program forever, we're not giving a hand up, we're enabling, and this is where the changes need to take place."

Kamia, do you truly know of a family who have lived on federal aid for four generations? I believe that may be hyperbole. If you do know this to be fact, you should talk with the local authorities so this family can be investigated. Personally, I think you have been listening to the Rush a little too often.

Bartley Deason
Bartley Deason4 years ago

Adam S wrote:
"The fact of the matter is that for every person that actually needs and uses these programs, there's at least one more who's simply taking advantage of the opportunity to live off of other people."
You made the statement, so can you please PROVE it? Do you have any handy facts or data? Any links to the source of facts for your statement? Are you saying that more than 50% of all people using Federal aid are "moochers"? Do you believe that this has always been the case, or did this just start happening after the devastating economic downturn of 2007? Please provide your proof.

Liliana Garcia
Liliana Garcia4 years ago

Thanks for the info. Too many contradictions in the economy in the USA has brought about the need for "safety net programs" on an almost permanent basis. Sad. I'm glad things worked out fine for Rebecca. Her family also gave her support so it was not only the programs.