By Jim Mangia, President & CEO, St. John’s Well Child and Family Centers
2014 is the 50th anniversary for two critical aspects of life in South Los Angeles. It’s the 50th anniversary of America’s “War on Poverty” and the 50th anniversary of St. John’s Well Child and Family Centers. St. John’s, founded by the LA Pediatric Society and St. John’s Episcopal Church in 1964, has become a major community based institution, not only as a critical part of the war on poverty in the United States, but the global struggle for health and human rights. Serving more than 150,000 patient visits a year – more than any other health institution in South Los Angeles – and engaged in a host of service, intervention and prevention programming that goes way beyond the traditional scope of a federally qualified health center, St. John’s embodies the efficient and effective use of private and public resources to attack a seemingly intractable problem (like poor health outcomes, or poverty) head on and with great success.
Political rhetoric aside, the War on Poverty has saved millions of lives and provided food, shelter and hope to tens of millions of children and families who would have been malnourished, or homeless, or without early childhood education or health services if the initiatives had not been developed. Many of these programs – among them the community health center program – are rated among the most effective and efficient by the federal Office of Management and Budget. We must never stop engaging all aspects of our community – and both private and public dollars – toward the goal of eliminating poverty in America.
While I was only two when the war on poverty was first announced, I grew up during the time when these programs helped us and many of our neighbors in the working class area of Brooklyn where I was raised. We lived in “government-subsidized” housing until I was eight, allowing us, in partnership with my grandparents, to save enough money to buy a small house. And we accessed health care at newly formed community health centers – which were a critical component of the war on poverty. President Johnson, and every subsequent presidential administration since, recognized the critical importance of primary care access for poor and working class families.
The link between ill health and poverty is well documented and study after study has shown that access to public health insurance and regular source of medical care for families living in poverty – improves life expectancy, health outcomes and (interestingly enough) improves income attainment. St. John’s has, for 50 years, provided those services and the access necessary to significantly improve health outcomes for hundreds of thousands of patients.
But as the CEO I see firsthand the limitations of the impact we can have because of the lack of resources available. I would argue that is the major problem with the war on poverty. From its inception – investment in the effective programming has declined in relative dollars. The problem with the War on Poverty is not that the programs didn’t work – it’s that they didn’t receive the resources necessary to go deeper and reach more people. The problem is under-investment. The cycles of budget cutting even in the midst of the Great Recession is testament to the ongoing failure of government to effectively fund and evaluate anti-poverty programs.
As someone who has been involved in the fight to eradicate poverty since I was a child – and certainly for the totality of my professional career – I believe we need a Marshall Plan to eradicate poverty. Much like we focused energy, know-how and resources to successfully rebuild the economies and indeed the nations we had defeated in World War II (which are now, two of the strongest economies in the world) – we must marshal a similar effort and a comparable investment to expand the war on poverty into a full-fledged, unrelenting, comprehensive effort. Only then will we see the poverty rate fall (even in an economic downturn) and will we realize – as we should as the greatest nation on earth – the full eradication of poverty in our lifetime.