It was just six weeks after President Kennedy was murdered in Dallas that Lyndon Johnson took to the podium to give his first State of the Union address. It was a seminal moment that introduced both the project and the term "War on Poverty" to the nation. The aim, he boldly stated, was not merely to relieve poverty but to cure it. Four months later, he introduced another term during a speech at Ohio University, the "Great Society," the latest iteration of FDR's "New Deal," Harry Truman's "Fair Deal" and JFK's "New Frontier."
While the Great Society programs have not cured poverty, and have come under strong criticism from both left and right, they have brought relief to tens of millions of Americans—particularly elderly Americans—who might otherwise have no roof over their heads, no food on their tables, no health coverage for their aged parents.
Much of the intellectual impetus for the War on Poverty came from Michael Harrington, who in 1962 wrote The Other America: Poverty in the United States, later invented the term neo-conservative and was a co-founder of Democratic Socialists of America. The book was read by JFK and assigned to college students across America. It was the required supplemental reading for my Political Science 101 class in 1964. A 1999 documentary film, Michael Harrington and Today's Other America: Corporate Power and Inequality includes archival film and interviews with supporters and critics of Harrington's descriptions of poverty and its causes as well as prescriptions to end it.
As Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson, now a vice chair of the DSA, wrote in The American Prospect in 2012:
The Other America is not merely a tour de force but a tour d’horizon, revealing, chapter by chapter, the distinct and overlapping geographies and demographics of American poverty. Harrington begins with a chapter on the working poor, describing a typical morning at New York’s 80 Warren Street, home to dozens of temporary employment agencies, where thousands reported daily for short-order jobs in kitchens and on construction sites. He next visits a non-union, low-wage factory in Chicago. Then he looks more broadly at low-paying jobs, noting that 16 million Americans in a labor force totaling 69.6 million were excluded from the federal minimum-wage law. He moves on to chapters about agricultural workers, African Americans, Appalachia, the elderly, the alcoholic and the mentally ill, in every case beginning with on-the-scene reporting before dissecting the broader historic, socioeconomic, and political factors that created so much misery. [...]The legislation engendered by the War on Poverty faced opposition from congressional Republicans. But Democrats had a 65 percent majority in the Senate and a 59 percent majority in the House, so there was never much doubt that the bills would pass. What emerged was Medicare, Medicaid, Volunteers in Service to America, the Job Corps, the Community Action Program (which launched Head Start), the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Food Stamp Act, which turned a pilot program into a permanent one for the entire nation.
Although The Other America eschews the S-word, Harrington’s socialism is what enabled him to see what almost everyone else had missed: that 40 million Americans in a nation of 176 million were poor. Amid what he termed the “familiar America” of new suburbs and two-car garages, the poor were still with us, but they were a hidden poor, “a great mass of people, yet it takes an effort of the intellect and will even to see them.”
Over the half-century since Johnson pressed all that legislation forward, the whole War on Poverty enterprise has been regularly critiqued and budgetarily dented, with the right still eagerly chipping and gouging away where it can, helped along by Democratic support for travesties like the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act that "reformed" welfare in 1996.
One key early critic of the War on Poverty was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who challenged it in his 1967 book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? as a "piecemeal" program that needed coordination and adequate funding to achieve its mission. He connected the failures of the War on Poverty with spending for the War in Vietnam. Never one to merely intone the words, the next year King founded the Poor Peoples Campaign to address those failures. Other critics said years later that too often War on Poverty programs had been turned into a war on the poor.
More on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty can be found below the fold.
As Meyerson wrote in his retrospective, Harrington believed the gains that working class Americans made as a consequence of the New Deal could be rolled back. And sure enough:
The nation whose eyes Harrington sought to open was one that took mass prosperity for granted. Fifty years later, however, that’s become a belief that’s difficult to sustain. The progressive taxation, regulation of finance, and widespread unionization that emerged from the New Deal to give America three decades of broadly shared affluence have crumbled under the subsequent 35-year assault from business interests and a resurgent right.Today, with 46.5 million Americans rated poor, the poverty rate is at 15 percent, with 6.6 percent deeply poor, bringing home less than $6,000 annually. More than one child in five lives in poverty. Which proves what everyone paying attention knows—that even with most of the Great Society programs in place, the holes remain.
What's needed now is not merely a reinvented, rejuvenated War on Poverty, but rather a non-violent War on Plutocracy, which continues to be the nation's greatest source of impoverishment.
The Urban Institute has a 41-piece collection of articles and studies on various aspects of poverty ranging from Unemployment and Poverty to Childhood Food Insecurity: The Mitigating Role of SNAP.
The Center for American Progress has published A Study of American Attitudes About Work, Economic Opportunity, and the Social Safety Net.
The War on Poverty segment of LBJ's 1964 State of the Union address:
But by closing down obsolete installations, by curtailing less urgent programs, by cutting back where cutting back seems to be wise, by insisting on a dollar's worth for a dollar spent, I am able to recommend in this reduced budget the most Federal support in history for education, for health, for retraining the unemployed, and for helping the economically and the physically handicapped.
This budget, and this year's legislative program, are designed to help each and every American citizen fulfill his basic hopes -- his hopes for a fair chance to make good; his hopes for fair play from the law; his hopes for a full-time job on full-time pay; his hopes for a decent home for his family in a decent community; his hopes for a good school for his children with good teachers; and his hopes for security when faced with sickness or unemployment or old age.
Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope -- some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.
This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.
It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it. One thousand dollars invested in salvaging an unemployable youth today can return $40,000 or more in his lifetime.
Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support. But this attack, to be effective, must also be organized at the State and the local level and must be supported and directed by State and local efforts.
For the war against poverty will not be won here in Washington. It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House.
The program I shall propose will emphasize this cooperative approach to help that one-fifth of all American families with incomes too small to even meet their basic needs.
Our chief weapons in a more pinpointed attack will be better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities to help more Americans, especially young Americans, escape from squalor and misery and unemployment rolls where other citizens help to carry them.
Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper -- in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.
But whatever the cause, our joint Federal-local effort must pursue poverty, pursue it wherever it exists -- in city slums and small towns, in sharecropper shacks or in migrant worker camps, on Indian Reservations, among whites as well as Negroes, among the young as well as the aged, in the boom towns and in the depressed areas.
Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it. No single piece of legislation, however, is going to suffice.
We will launch a special effort in the chronically distressed areas of Appalachia.
We must expand our small but our successful area redevelopment program.
We must enact youth employment legislation to put jobless, aimless, hopeless youngsters to work on useful projects.
We must distribute more food to the needy through a broader food stamp program.
We must create a National Service Corps to help the economically handicapped of our own country as the Peace Corps now helps those abroad.
We must modernize our unemployment insurance and establish a high-level commission on automation. If we have the brain power to invent these machines, we have the brain power to make certain that they are a boon and not a bane to humanity.
We must extend the coverage of our minimum wage laws to more than 2 million workers now lacking this basic protection of purchasing power.
We must, by including special school aid funds as part of our education program, improve the quality of teaching, training, and counseling in our hardest hit areas.
We must build more libraries in every area and more hospitals and nursing homes under the Hill-Burton Act, and train more nurses to staff them.
We must provide hospital insurance for our older citizens financed by every worker and his employer under Social Security, contributing no more than $1 a month during the employee's working career to protect him in his old age in a dignified manner without cost to the Treasury, against the devastating hardship of prolonged or repeated illness.
We must, as a part of a revised housing and urban renewal program, give more help to those displaced by slum clearance, provide more housing for our poor and our elderly, and seek as our ultimate goal in our free enterprise system a decent home for every American family.
We must help obtain more modern mass transit within our communities as well as low-cost transportation between them. Above all, we must release $11 billion of tax reduction into the private spending stream to create new jobs and new markets in every area of this land.
These programs are obviously not for the poor or the underprivileged alone. Every American will benefit by the extension of social security to cover the hospital costs of their aged parents. Every American community will benefit from the construction or modernization of schools, libraries, hospitals, and nursing homes, from the training of more nurses and from the improvement of urban renewal in public transit. And every individual American taxpayer and every corporate taxpayer will benefit from the earliest possible passage of the pending tax bill from both the new investment it will bring and the new jobs that it will create.