In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson attempted to lead a country scarred by racism, wounded by lives lived in poverty and in shock after the assassination of a President. He proposed legislation over two years that attempted to move the country forward—he embraced change and fought the battle against fear and misunderstanding. But for everything that LBJ did—creating Head Start, Job Corps, Medicaid and Medicare—he started the efforts off on the wrong foot; he gave it the most American of titles: The War of Poverty.
Fifty years later, praise showers the merits of many of the reforms (of course sprinkled with some criticism). If after so long programs such as Head Start are shown to be successful, why hasn’t it been implemented for all children, and why is there still widespread poverty? The answer is of course complex, and I won’t attempt my dissertation on the political and economic factors in this short blog. But I will offer up a lesson in communication.
Why do we call it a War on Poverty? That’s an awfully aggressive way to say we’re trying to help people. A war assumes there is an enemy that must be defeated. Here are our war stats, as summarized through metaphor:
Weapons: education, healthcare, job opportunities
Battles: political approval, implementation
Victory: end of poverty
This sounds like a war that will never end. Those are generally unpopular wars that hurt a nation rather than help it. It seems comical to launch a social service campaign aimed at helping people by naming it something that connotes bloodshed. How do the soldiers win? Is there a surrender? “I Poverty, offer my complete and unconditional surrender, to you Reformers. We lay down our weapons of racism, sexism and economic oppression and offer support for a future where we work together.”
Well that sounds crazy. As we work to alleviate poverty in our area, let us remember that there is only one goal: to improve lives. We shall do that by working in cooperation rather than in warfare. So while we await my political and economic dissertation, let’s remember to start at the very beginning with a name.
I give LBJ some credit. He used an inciting word to drive action. War. Fight. Battle. These words are meant to invoke movement. But rather than using fear to create Movement, let’s use love to create A Movement. And so long as we’re using war analogies I offer my own: It is in my humble, and perhaps idealistic opinion, that love conquers fear.
Do you have thoughts on the name of A Movement?