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Raising minimum wage is a key to progress in the war on poverty

The War on Poverty is in the news because this year marks the 50th anniversary of its launch by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. The offensive gave us Medicare for affordable health care for the elderly, Medicaid for affordable health care for poor families and the elderly, Head Start, Legal Services, the Job Corps for job training, VISTA, community action program agencies, and much more.

And it gave us a continuing national commitment to serving the poor and a measure to tell us if the poverty rate is going up or down. Of course there is still widespread poverty, but it’s much less than it was a half-century ago then because of the war’s programs and their successors.

Michael Harrington’s book “The Other America” told stories of the poor in Appalachia and in our cities, and his narrative moved President John F. Kennedy to launch the planning for an initiative to tackle poverty. LBJ, who had worked in and seen the value of the New Deal’s social and employment programs in the 1930s, stepped up to make this a truly big deal for the poor and wanting.

Some 21 years later, in 1986, President Ronald Reagan weighed in with this: “In 1964, the famous War on Poverty was declared and a funny thing happened … I guess you could say, poverty won the war.” But this joke was really aimed at pushing his agenda for government doing little for the poor and more for big business. When he was governor of California, Reagan was thwarted by the Legal Services arm of LBJ’s poverty legislation when he tried to introduce policies that would favor big farm growers over migrant workers.

The debate continues today. Marco Rubio, the US senator from Florida who is a likely candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, is saying we don’t need an increase in the minimum wage; let’s do job training or education. This from a politician who is against any increased federal spending for job training or education. What about doing both?

In Dorchester and Mattapan, we have the Head Start program on Geneva Avenue and other locations. We have Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD) and its affiliates; the Dorchester Neighborhood Service Center on Claybourne Street in Codman Square, and the Mattapan Family Service Center on River Street in Mattapan Square running fuel assistance programs and other social service programs.

From the 1960s through the 1990s, ABCD’s Dorchester affiliate was the Dorchester APAC, which was run for many years by Doris Graham at its then location at the corner of Washington and Park streets. The Geiger-Gibson Health Center in Dorchester was the first of the country’s community health centers, a development nurtured by the War on Poverty. Mrs. Graham’s APAC supported the Determined People of Dorchester, a group made up of white poor and working class residents led by Helen Sinawski, Pat Egan, and others who lived around the old Dorchester House that organized and received a major government grant to build the new Dorchester House in 1973.

VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) sent young people to work in communities with the poor and paid them a subsistence salary. While VISTA continues under that name, it’s now known mainly by the name City Year, and City Year volunteers today are helping in six Dorchester schools.

I was a soldier in the War on Poverty in Dorchester. I served as a VISTA volunteer for three years with the Dorchester Tenants Action Council in the early 1970’s. We organized tenants of major absentee landlords like George Wattendorf, Joe Venezia, and Irwin Cantor and we worked to get them to fix code violations and keep rents reasonable. We helped organize the movement to strengthen the city’s then rent control law to regulate increases sought by these sorts of landlords.

We need an increase in the minimum wage. It is now $8 an hour but if the 1968 minimum wage had been indexed to inflation, it would be $10.70 today. Our state Senate has approved a major increase in the minimum wage, setting it at $11 by 2016. The Raise Up Massachusetts coalition collected more than 150,000 voter signatures to qualify an increased wage proposal for a binding referendum this fall. The state House of Representatives may vote on this in the next month.

Of course, an increased minimum wage is not a living wage; that would be $17 an hour. Getting wages up to that amount for more low pay earners will take more funding for education, job training, and English as a Second Language (ESL) programs. We need to attack changes in jobs that are increasingly contracted out and contingent on enabling employers to not have to pay benefits. We need to make it more possible for people to organize and join unions, a process that is much, much harder today because current laws allow employers to massively engage in illegal practices in the present and suffer small fines years later.

The prophet Isaiah and Jesus were very clear on our obligations to the poor. Said Isaiah: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people. ...What will you do on the day of reckoning…?”

We are a nation of abundance and traditions of compassion. Working with that wealth and those traditions, we can make the political, corporate, and personal choices that would lessen the number of those who are poor.

Lew Finfer is a Dorchester resident and Director of the Dorchester-based Massachusetts Communities Action Network.