August 28, 2014: Belmont Citizen-Herald
Fifty years ago last week, on August 20, 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act into law.
The President declared that the law would “help our people find their footing for a long climb toward a better way of life.” LBJ stated that “in helping others, all of us will really be helping ourselves.”
In enacting this legislation, Democrats and Republicans, both, joined America’s War on Poverty declared by the President just months earlier, in his January 1964 State of the Union address. Fifty years later, it is appropriate to reflect upon how that effort has played out in our own local community.
One important first step in this reflection is to acknowledge the extent of economic hardship in Belmont. More than 1,400 Belmont residents today, young and old, live with an annual income below the Federal Poverty Level. One-quarter of these residents are Belmont kids under the age of 18; another one-in-five are Belmont seniors age 65 or older.
A discussion of poverty, however, does not reveal the complete story of economic hardship in Belmont. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) calculates a living wage for all Massachusetts communities. A living wage is that income needed for a basic standard of living without outside assistance.
In Belmont, MIT reports, a living wage for a household with one parent and one child is $25.94/hour ($53,961/year). A two-parent family with one child needs a wage of $20.99/hour ($43,699/year), while a two-person household with no children (which covers most of Belmont’s aging population) requires $17.33/hour ($36,050/year). These living wages are between three and four times higher than a Poverty Level income. More than 4,900 Belmont residents –one-fifth of our community– live with income below 300% of Poverty.
Belmont is a generous community in supporting local residents who may be facing financial hard times. The Belmont Food Pantry offers free assistance with groceries. The Belmont Affordable Shelter Fund offers emergency assistance for housing-related crises. The Town offers property tax breaks for those who need them. Belmont Light offers discounted electricity rates for those in financial need.
And, yet, these initiatives do not fully address the aspirations that LBJ so eloquently expressed in 1964. Addressing the short-term financial crises facing our neighbors isn’t quite the same as providing “the answer of opportunity” that the President discussed.
While the War on Poverty declared by President Johnson cannot be won by local government actions, local government actions are needed to support any progress that might be made. Actions to support economic opportunity need not originate in Washington.
- Belmont needs to be wary of the lack of welcomeness toward affordable two- and three-family homes, whether expressed explicitly or inherent in a lack of attention to disproportionate burdens imposed on persons not living in single-family homes.
- Belmont should fully fund its education system, so that “activity fees” will not pose barriers to participation in fundamental educational activities such as theatre, athletics and music.
- Belmont should continue efforts to ensure that it is a bike-able, walk-able community, allowing residents to avoid a necessary reliance upon expensive single-occupancy automobile trips for basic household needs such as shopping and medical attention.
- Belmont should provide a range of housing opportunities, serving the needs of residents in all stages of the life-cycle, from the young to the old.
On the 50th anniversary of our national commitment to economic opportunity, we should not merely celebrate that commitment, but we should renew that commitment both individually and collectively through local public policy.