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My parents could not have come from more different backgrounds. Dad was the son of a well-to-do Irish Catholic immigrant and executive in the canning industry. His father’s money afforded him the benefit of private schools, a lovely home, summers in the Adirondacks, and a degree in economics from Columbia. But the Great Depression meant that my father’s acceptance letter from Harvard Law School would go unanswered. That’s around the same time his drinking began in earnest, and it gathered steam throughout a stint in the Marine Corps during World War II. By the time I was born as the last child of four in 1958, Dad was a raging alcoholic, unable to hold a steady job. He left for good when I was two, and after that I saw him mostly in halfway houses, down on his luck and asking my mother for a few dollars to get back on his feet—which, despite it all, she never could find it in her heart to refuse.

My mother came from a long line of white-shoe Baptists in Tennessee. Married at nineteen with a high school education, like most women of her generation she didn’t go to college. She had no marketable skills outside being a wife and mother. She herself was the child of an alcoholic father whom she adored, and like many children of alcoholics she found herself unwittingly married to one. But when the handwriting was on the wall, she packed up her four children, left my father, and moved to her mother’s house in Baltimore. There, Grandma and my sisters helped get me fed and dressed and off to school each day while my mother taught herself to type, landed a day job as a secretary, then took a second job on nights and weekends as an admissions clerk at a local hospital. By 1966 she was earning enough money to move us to a one-bedroom apartment in the Baltimore suburbs, where I benefitted from outstanding public schools and an array of sports and extracurricular activities. She scrimped to afford piano lessons and summer camps, dragged me to the symphony and art galleries, enrolled me in scouting, and steered me toward experiences that revealed a fascinating world beyond the borders of the one she could afford for us.

By the time I went off to college in 1976 there was no money for tuition, but a patchwork quilt of state and federal loans, grants and work-study programs made it possible for me to graduate from the University of Maryland. When I married at twenty-three and my wife and I resolved to go to law school without taking money from our families, government loans again made that possible, as did the Section-8 housing that cost us only about a $100 per month. We lived well below the poverty line in those three years, with a $75 monthly food budget and average annual income of less than $8,000 from part-time jobs, but we never considered ourselves poor. We felt like students with a bright future, and we were right.

Not long after we were off and running in our first jobs, we paid off our school loans in full and never looked back. This year will mark thirty years for me in private practice, and in that time I have been privileged not only to earn my living in the law but to support the jobs of dozens of associates, paralegals, secretaries and staff who have worked with me.

My story is common to many members of the Baby Boom generation, most of whose parents were not rich and didn’t have the wherewithal to afford fully paid educations or the advantages my father enjoyed as a child. Notwithstanding those advantages, my father failed. Notwithstanding the obstacles of young marriage, divorce and single parenthood without advanced education or skills, my mother succeeded and enabled her children to do the same. Why?  How?

With the arrival of the 50th anniversary of President’s Johnson’s War on Poverty I have read a number of interesting essays gauging its success or failure. Some counsel a surge of more spending to achieve final victory, while others would abandon the battlefield in a disorderly retreat. Conservatives bemoan social programs generally and the bureaucracies that administer them for perpetuating dependency, claiming that the only sure way up for the poor is through gritty determination and self-reliance. They are wrong, of course. Without the government’s help, I wouldn’t have made it and neither would many conservative critics who benefitted from government programs that lightened or lifted the financial burden of a good education and affordable food, health care and housing. But it seems the liberals are no wiser, and President Johnson was chief among them. He tragically and falsely told the nation, “For the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty.”  Today it is an article of the progressive faith that if we only open the coffers of state and federal spending wide enough, we will win a decisive, final victory in the war that President Johnson began. The cause is noble, but the logic is flawed. The War on Poverty is an unfortunate metaphor, because as a nation we can no more conquer poverty than my father could vanquish himself.  As Pogo famously observed, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

The War on Poverty is a war indeed, but it is one waged by people and families, not governments. Conservatives fail to realize that President Johnson’s programs are invaluable allies in that war, but liberals fail to see that government is at the rear guard of the fight. No amount of largesse nor any force of sheer will can assure victory. Life is messier than that. Despite our best efforts, alcoholism, drug addiction, violence and random events will defeat a substantial number of us who will never rise. More than a trillion dollars in spending on poverty programs since 1965 has indeed lowered and stabilized historical rates of poverty, but the rate hasn’t strayed far from what it was when President Johnson left office in 1969. A stubborn ten to fifteen percent of our population is poor, year in and year out, through administrations Democratic and Republican.  That doesn’t mean we should stop spending money to help them, but it might mean that we should stop using poverty spending as a political football.  As always the magic is in the middle, which poses a challenge for a government as badly polarized as ours.

Our task is to see the world as it is and do what can be done without excoriating ourselves or our leaders for failing to achieve what cannot be done. We should not regard the persistence of poverty as a failure of President Johnson’s policies or a reason to abandon them.  But neither should we allow our politics to be driven by the fantasy that government can eradicate the myriad human frailties that lead to unemployment and failure. Such a war would be only tilting at windmills.

(The foregoing journal entry is the unedited version of an editorial by Michael Hurley that appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer on February 2, 2014.)