Politicians perennially seeking to curtail or scrap programs such as Medicaid or welfare regularly claim, with some justification, that President Lyndon Johnson’s so-called 1964 War on Poverty is a failure. Yet this charge raises relevant questions that these very same politicians decline to answer: Why did it fail? Did it fail in all areas or just some? Have statistics highlighted challenges that might be better addressed if the strategy in that War on Poverty were changed or refined? And, finally, what do folks in communities crippled by poverty say? Did anyone think to ask them?
One might well pose similar questions regarding Prosper Waco, which last week held a banquet that quickly evolved into an information-packed rundown on programs recently crafted by nonprofits and community leaders and introduced to battle Waco’s stubborn poverty problem. Yet other programs are still in formative stages. One of the most interesting formally unveiled was a renewed effort to battle teen pregnancy, a challenge that 95 percent of community leaders involved with Prosper Waco, the Waco Foundation and SmartBabies Initiative believe should be a higher priority. Who could disagree?
As Trib staff writer Shelly Conlon reports: Texas has the fourth-highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation — and McLennan County’s 2014 rate of 38.8 teen pregnancies per 1,000 females ages 15-19 is even higher than the state’s rate of 36.3. And 388 babies were born to mothers under age 20 in 2015 — just a little over a baby a day born to a teen mom. Too often, teen births mean not only the mothers’ opportunities for higher education and good-paying jobs in the future are considerably limited, so too are opportunities for their children, allowing generational poverty to cycle on and on. The goal, 1,000 Feathers President Forrest Alton told Wacoans at Thursday’s banquet, should be “preventing children from having children.”
And yet anyone considering the larger picture must concede dynamics in all this sometimes seem to be working at cross-purposes: Just as community leaders push a program encouraging abstinence but also crucial access to contraception, the president of the United States signs an executive order gutting a mandate of contraception coverage in most insurance plans in the name of religious liberty. Will the latter action affect the former? Possibly not, but it sure doesn’t make the hill any easier to climb. (Ironically, the local effort gathering steam sees the faith community as a partner.)
All this highlights a hard truth about poverty quite possibly impossible for many people to digest: Whether it’s technology eliminating manufacturing jobs, new trade policies closing off markets, education protocols that fail to produce an equipped workforce or a society that ignores its record on teen births and the limits placed on mother and child, poverty will remain with us for many reasons. The charge of a civilized society is to continually fight it, employing as many as possible in that mission. That’s important as Prosper Waco, launched in 2015, continues to gain traction and coordinate nonprofits, faith leaders and community volunteers in this unending war. The goal is seeing that each program opens yet another door of opportunity and economic equality — and that, along the way, we do gain an upper hand over the absolute worst in poverty.