50 years later, 'War on Poverty' rages on in El Paso

50 years later, 'War on Poverty' rages on in El Paso

EL PASO, Texas - It's been 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson declared a "War on Poverty." A lot has changed since then, but the battle rages on in El Paso.

The national poverty rate has dropped from 19 to 15 percent in that time. Poverty for a family of four in 2012 meant earning less than about $24,000. In El Paso County, about one in four people live in poverty today -- that's among the 10 poorest counties in the U.S.

"People in this community genuinely care about those in need here in El Paso," said Rose Lucero of the Salvation Army. "But is the war over? No. And I don't know that it ever will be."

And so Lucero stands on the front lines -- her tactics in this never-ending battle must be practical.

"That they've got clothes on their back, that they are being fed, that they've got a place to stay, that they know someone cares about them," Lucero said.

Last year, the Salvation Army served more than 100,000 meals, totaling nearly $170,000. Almost 50,000 nights of lodging approached $350,000. In total, the organization spend more than $950,000 helping nearly 20,000 El Pasoans.

Lucero said people often ask her, "'Is that national?' And I say, 'No, that's here in El Paso."

But the national numbers also reveal a dire need. Since the War on Poverty began, the U.S. Has spent nearly $20 trillion on welfare assistance. Welfare spending as a percentage of GDP quintupled in that time.

"Every month I receive $741," said Jose Soto, who doesn't qualify for Social Security if he works more than two hours a day.

Soto said he's been out out of a job for six years. Before getting into an apartment recently, he was on the streets for about a decade.

"Poverty is gonna be all the time," said Nino, 62.

Nino has been homeless about three years and lives on less than $20 a day. Friday will conclude his three weeks at the Salvation Army. His next steps are up in the air.

"I don't know," Nino said. "I'm gonna think about it."

America has some thinking to do of its own, said Dr. Tim Roth, a UTEP economics professor.

"You do need to build into a system of transfer payments an incentive structure," Roth said. "That encourages people to do something affirmative to try to help themselves."

Roth said one way people can help themselves is through education. In 1970, half of high-school completers went on to college. About 40 years later, nearly three out of four did so. But it's easier said than done.

"Many of the people on general assistance are people with children," Roth said. "It's not always easy to break away and go take classes. But that is the solution, and that is where we need to do some work."

Roth said there's no silver bullet for ending poverty. But House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R.-Va., has been speaking to urban schools about poverty this week. He, too, stresses the importance of education.

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