The War on Poverty, 50 years Later

Fifty years ago, in early 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson publicly called for a “War on Poverty.” This far-reaching effort in the mid-1960s brought about many changes to the way Americans look at and officially respond to poverty and discrimination. One document (from a University of Virginia faculty website) sums it up nicely:

Between President Lyndon Johnson’s State of the Union address in 1964 and the liberal setbacks suffered in the congressional elections of 1966, the Johnson administration pushed through an unprecedented amount of antipoverty legislation. The Economic Opportunity Act (1964) provided the basis for the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), the Job Corps, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Upward Bound, Head Start, Legal Services, the Neighborhood Youth Corps, the Community Action Program (CAP), the college Work-Study program, Neighborhood Development Centers, small business loan programs, rural programs, migrant worker programs, remedial education projects, local health care centers, and others. The antipoverty effort, however, did not stop there. It encompassed a range of Great Society legislation far broader than the Economic Opportunity Act alone. Other important measures with antipoverty functions included an $11 billion tax cut (Revenue Act of 1964), the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Food Stamp Act (1964), the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), the Higher Education Act (1965), the Social Security amendments creating Medicare/Medicaid (1965), the creation of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (1965), the Voting Rights Act (1965), the Model Cities Act (1966), the Fair Housing Act (1968), several job-training programs, and various Urban Renewal projects.

If you do a search right now of the term “War on Poverty,” almost every result in the first few pages will offer some perspective of where we are fifty years later, and many of those perspectives acknowledge that we’ve not achieved Johnson’s Great Society. In a recent e-mail blast to supporters of his Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Rev. Jesse Jackson wrote about the nation’s lack of progress: “With over 46 million in poverty today, including more than one in five children, Johnson’s promise is mocked by today’s realities.”

For any criticisms that we could make of the man, I admire some of the political successes that Lyndon Johnson had: the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act as biggies, but also a wide array of educational and fair housing initiatives. Voices from the conservative Right often decry the above-listed measures as having created a welfare state that encourages people not to work. I think that perspective is absurd. And as a Christian, I regard antipoverty programs as morally right; if I’m going to pay taxes, then these are the kinds of programs I want my dollars to fund.

I’m not going use this post to quote and cite articles ad nauseum that you could read for yourself. If you read that excerpt above, then you know why the War on Poverty was important and why its programs need to continue.

Fifty years ago, Texas gave us a man who changed America with legislation and subsequent programs that he hoped would resolve poverty and inequality. According to the Digital Edition of the Presidential Recordings of Lyndon B. Johnson, he did this with “a fellow Texan, House Appropriations Committee Chairman George Mahon” who rallied support from “a number of other Democrats from Texas and the South.”

Americans today probably can’t fathom a president having Southern support for those initiatives. For example, more recently, Texas has given us George W. Bush, Rick Perry, and Ted Cruz, all Republicans whose agendas have been very different from LBJ’s.

The bottom line, as I see it, is: these very important programs are now being seen by some powerful people as outdated or unnecessary “entitlements” that promote laziness and other unproductive attitudes. I disagree wholeheartedly. If we have to fund a bureaucracy to police discriminatory practices in employment, education, housing and healthcare, then that says something about our culture, not about the programs. And I have serious concerns about the motives of people who want to dismantle protections for people who suffer discrimination.

Most Americans under 60 have only a bare-minimum understanding of pre-Civil Rights America. People in their 50s today (born in 1954 – 1963) have only scant personal experiences from the period, people in their 40s (born 1964 – 1973) probably don’t remember the movement at all, and people under 40 (born in 1974 or later) have absolutely no personal recollection of any of it, but that doesn’t mean that the grotesque social order of Jim Crow society never did exist. Don’t let re-runs of Leave It to Beaver (1957 – 1963) and Ozzy and Harriet (1952 – 1966) fool you. Turn off the TV, stay completely away from Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, and go read a book like John Egerton’s Speak Now Against the Day. Younger Americans may not have any experience with the culture that necessitated War on Poverty legislation, but we need to be careful not to revert back to it because we foolishly dismantle these programs. (Sadly, part of the Voting Rights Act has already been nullified by a court case from Shelby County, Alabama.) Only a fool thinks, if I didn’t see it, then it didn’t happen.

The facts of current poverty and discrimination will not allow us to delude ourselves and proclaim that it’s all better now. There are school systems all over the nation with 80% – 90% rates of participation in free-or-reduced meal program. If food stamps and WIC programs were unnecessary, it would be obvious because no one would be using them. If educational and employment opportunities were truly equal, then the African-American unemployment rate wouldn’t be more than double the white unemployment rate. If we look at facts – not rhetoric, but actual facts – we will understand two things very clearly: the War on Poverty isn’t over, and we need to keep on fighting it.

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