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‘War on Poverty’ continues 50 years later

Brady Slater

One of the battles still being waged in the continuing “War on Poverty” declared by President Lyndon Johnson decades ago is intolerance.

“A lot of folks get frustrated with people in poverty,” said Harlan Tardy, executive director of Kootasca Community Action, a nonprofit human service agency serving Koochiching and Itasca counties. “Over the last

10 years we’ve seen a lot more intolerance toward it. They think they’re not putting in the effort, that they have every opportunity to pull themselves up.”

Fighting intolerance will be among the topics as 600 people representing community action groups from across the state meet at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center this week. The gathering is a statewide training conference that celebrates the 50 years since Johnson’s signing of the landmark Economic Opportunity Act of 1964.

At the time, the United States faced a nearly 20 percent poverty level. That number has diminished across several segments of the population. But even today, Community Action Duluth reports 22 percent of Duluth residents living under the federal government’s definition of poverty — $23,850 annual income or less for a household of four.  The fight is far from over in the eyes of Angie Miller, executive director for Community Action Duluth. She recalled the most recent tax season, when the group’s free tax-filers would express their astonishment to her for seeing people struggling, despite putting together three and four part-time jobs and working upward of

70 hours per week.

“The more people you know in poverty,” Miller said, “the more empathy you have.”

The week’s celebration of victories big and small included Monday’s 50-mile bike ride from Willow River to Duluth, commemorating 50 years of anti-poverty legislation that bred things like the Head Start and Meals on Wheels programs. Each of the 75 riders raised about $100 or more, Tardy said. On Friday, Gov. Mark Dayton will address the conference.

Often, what people on the outside don’t see is the breadth of struggles a person in poverty can be facing.

“They’re dealing with four and five issues before they’re able just to get on their feet,” Tardy said.

For instance, people who grow up in poverty don’t follow what might be considered normal trajectories. So, a person might not take driver’s education. Later, as an adult, transportation then becomes just one of the struggles people face.

That many people in poverty have cellphones, Miller said, can be a strike against them in the court of public opinion.

Working to change that perception is among the goals for the week.

“The War on Poverty needs to be renewed,” Tardy said. “We need more energy to get back to caring for people who are the most in need.”