50 years after LBJ declaration, War on Poverty continues amid criticism

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SARASOTA – Fifty years into to the War on Poverty, one in five U.S. children under age five still lives in poverty. But those who work in anti-poverty programs say that success stories prove the worth of anti-poverty programs and that without them poverty would be even worse, and cost us even more.

It was January 8, 1964 that President Lyndon B. Johnson told the Congress, “And this administration today here and now declares unconditional war on poverty in America.” Those words set off an expansion of government, and creation of new programs, meant to fight that war.

And seven-month old Angel Clemons is one of the youngest in battle. She is one of 550 kids in an Early Head Start program run by Children First in Sarasota. “It's a blessing to us and our children,” says her mother, Katrina Patterson, “because they're learning, and we're able to work to supply for our household.”

Patterson and Angel’s dad, Nagash Clemens both work, yet still fall below the federal poverty line that qualifies Angel and two older siblings for Head Start. “We're fortunate enough to have all our bills paid,” Clemens says. “It's check to check but we're definitely making it.”

Kids in the program not only get supervision and education, they get roughly half their meals for the week while they're here. Their parents get counseling. And studies have shown that head start will give Angel a better chance of graduating high school, staying out of jail, and avoiding teen pregnancy.

“Not just feeling good, not just 'this is great for kids and don't they look beautiful on a playground,'” says Philip Tavill, CEO of Children First. “It's really good economic sense.”

For one, Patterson says, it keeps her employed. Before her kids got into Children First, if her baby sitter cancelled, she had to miss work to stay home. It cost her two jobs. Angel got into the program just before Christmas break. What a gift, she says. “When they got it, I wanted to cry because I was able to finally just be able to work without calling off or being unreliable (at work).”

As the country gets more budget conscious, many programs like this face cuts. Children First had to drop 10% of the kids it serves last year, thanks to the sequester. Tavill says Head Start proves its worth, and the money we spend now, is much less than the costs will become if kids like Angel get pregnant, drop out of school, or find trouble with the law.