Rebecca Johnson of Barnesville, Minnesota 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.”
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.
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.
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.