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Black History Month 2014: Great Society's Promise Started Out Strong

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Fifty years after President Lyndon Johnson declared "War on Poverty" prominent New Yorkers have had a lot to say about the movement that lifted many African Americans out of poverty, but it also has its share of critics. NY1's Cheryl Wills filed the following report.

Fifty years ago President Lyndon B. Johnson sent a message loud and clear to the African American community as his ambitious "War on Poverty" sought to lift all impoverished Americans out of the depths of despair.

State Senator James Sanders Jr. of Rockaway, Queens had just entered grade school when LBJ dedicated his State of the Union address to ending poverty: From Head start to the Job Corps to Medicare & Medicaid, many impoverished blacks suddenly found themselves within reach of the American dream.

"He thought of me and the folk like me when he created his programs," Sanders said. "My father was a sharecropper, mother a domestic. Without the LBJ approach, I never would have went to college."

But a half-century later some prominent New Yorkers look at Johnson's efforts and wonder what could have been.

"We lost the 'War on Poverty,'" said NAACP New York State Conference Leader Hazel Dukes. "President Johnson would be saddened to see where we are today, back further almost than we were."

Today, about 50 million Americans, including 13 million children, live below the poverty line - barely a five percent change from the mid 1960s.

"I think the failure itself comes after Johnson with the failure of presidents to pick up that mantle with the kind of authority LBJ gave it," said Community Organizer Chet Whye.

And although James Sanders now a charismatic politician himself says his family was lifted out of poverty thanks to Johnson's Great Society, he admits that more needs to be done.

"On one hand, his legacy is that there is a safety net. However, that safety net has been tattered and is getting worse," Sanders said.

Some economists say if the government's official numbers are adjusted for inflation, the poverty rate has substantially improved over the last two generations, but most agree that poverty is still a major crisis in America.

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