February is Black History Month, and all this week, NY1 is looking back at President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty 50 years ago and its impact on the African-American community then and now. Cheryl Wills filed the following report.
Anthony Williams, 23, is trying to break the cycle of poverty that has been deeply entrenched in his family for three generations in Jamaica, Queens.
“I’m sad and I’m scared and I’m a little bit ashamed, I’m ashamed because we live in America and it shouldn’t be like that it should be the complete opposite. We should have ladders to success. We should have ways to get out of poverty,” Williams said.
Williams was first incarcerated at the age of 15. Now he has a full-time job and is going to college thanks to The Queens Justice Corp., which gives ex-convicts between the ages of 18 and 24 a second chance.
In 1964, President Johnson initiated an ambitious federal program to give downtrodden Americans a second chance by declaring War on Poverty. But 50 years later, in many African American communities like Jamaica Queens, not much has changed.
“LBJ would probably be so hurt and so frustrated that we are such an opulent country that has so many poor,” said Tenaja Jordan of Queens Justice Corp.
In New York today, 1.8 million residents, that’s one in five, live in poverty.
Many of the federal programs that were created by Johnson’s Economic Opportunity Act have long disbanded and not-for-profits have been picking up the slack in the decades since.
“There are new weapons in that war against poverty. Robin Hood is one of those weapons,” said David Saltzman of the Robin Hood Foundation.
The Robin Hood foundation, based in Manhattan, raises big bucks from corporations and has given more than $1 billion to not-for-profits that target poverty. Founder David Saltzman says fighting poverty in the 21st century is ideally a public-private partnership and he says LBJ’s Great Society laid the foundation.
“It didn’t solve everything but it wasn’t intended to solve everything. It was intended to be a start and it was a big, big start and we as a nation have to continue to fight,” said Saltzman.
Anthony Williams has been fighting pretty much all of his life. He says he’s the first in generations to see light at the end of the tunnel.
“It’s just so easy to go, ‘Hey let me get a quarter, let me get some weed, let me get some drugs,’” he said. “But I’m not trying to do that, I’m trying to go the right way.”