American president Lyndon B Johnson signs the war on poverty bill during a ceremony outdoors at the White House Rose Garden, Washington, DC. (Photo by Arnold Sachs/Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images)
Today marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s iconic War on Poverty. Sadly, half a century later, a new war is needed more than ever. America can point to the legacy of that ambitious program—with all its successes and failures— even as the country today is apparently losing that war.
On January 8, 1964 in his State of the Union address, President Johnson took the first step of tackling the ever present national problem of poverty in the United States. At that time, as the President noted, one in every five families earned incomes too small to meet their basic needs. And he seemed to realize the impact that poverty had on the country as a whole.
“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,” Johnson said. “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.”
President Johnson articulated his new initiative as a cooperative approach, a joint effort requiring national organization and support, with direction and support from the state and local level. His goal was to attack poverty wherever it existed, whether in cities or small towns, among blacks or whites or Native Americans on the reservations, sharecroppers or migrants workers, the young or the elderly.
Moreover, Johnson wanted to not only relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to prevent it as well.
“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,” President Johnson declared in his speech. And he identified the best weapons for attack, including better schools, health and homes, as well as better jobs opportunities and training to allow Americans to escape from their miserable condition.
Johnson’s War on Poverty consisted of a number of initiatives, including the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which created local Community Action Agencies to serve the needs of low income people. The Act also established programs such as Head Start, a program promoting school readiness for young children, the Job Corps, which provided education and training to young people, and Volunteers In Service to America, or VISTA, a national service program to fight poverty.
Under the Food Stamp Act of 1964, the nation’s largest food program, the federal government provides currency-type benefits for food for needy people, while the states cover the cost of determining who is eligible and distributing the stamps. Further, the Social Security Act of 1965 created Medicare and Medicaid, health insurance programs for the elderly and the poor, while the elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 became the largest form of federal aid to primary and secondary or K-12 schools.
Looking back at the broad, ambitious agenda set out by LBJ half a century ago, there is ample evidence that his efforts were a success for the most vulnerable in society. For example, according to the Census Bureau, the safety net kept 41 million people, including 9 million children out of poverty in 2012. Further, new research suggests the safety net created by the War on Poverty helped cut the poverty rate from 26 percent in 1967 to 16 percent in 2012. Further, 29 percent would be in poverty today without those programs. The study, however, suggests the economy has done little to better the lives of the most destitute, pointing to the need to make structural changes to the economy.
Despite its successes, Johnson’s War on Poverty was a victim of misplaced priorities. The war in Vietnam diverted resources from anti-poverty programs, as there simply was not enough money to pay for two wars. Martin Luther King understood this. “I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube,” Dr. King said. “So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such. Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home.”
Unfortunately, over the years politicians have waged a war against anti-poverty programs and have scapegoated the poor themselves. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan—who had scored political points by conjuring up the image of the black “welfare queen” getting rich from government handouts—declared that poverty won and the war was over. Further, in August 1996 President Bill Clintonsaid that “Today, we are ending welfare as we know it” when he signed a bill ending the federal guarantee of cash assistance to the poor and turning over welfare to the states.
Now, welfare is known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF. Two-thirds of poor children received welfare in the mid-1990s. Today that number has fallen to 27 percent. What’s worse is that 6 million people have no other source of income other than food stamps. The U.S. safety net isfar less generous and less comprehensive than that of other nations and, as a result, America is not as effective at fighting poverty and inequality as it could. This is why poverty is higher in the U.S. than in other prosperous nations.
And poverty in America remains high—very high in fact, at 50 million people (including 13 million children) or 16 percent, the highest rate since President Johnson was in office. In 1964 the poverty rate was 19 percent, and in 1969 it had fallen to 12.1 percent. In addition, 100 million Americans, or 1 in 3, live at twice the poverty level, which is $23,000 for a family of four.
Fifty years after the War on Poverty, U.S. economic inequality is now the highest since 1928, thanks to policies that have redistributed income at the expense of the poor. In 1928, the top 1 percent of families made 23.9 percent of the income. In 1944, this fell to 11.3 percent, with the bottom 90 percent receiving 67.5 percent. In 2012, the top 1 percent claimed 22.5 percent, and the bottom 90 percent fell below 50 percent (49.6) for the first time in history.
Unfortunately, in post-recession America, the majority of new jobs are low paying, and wages have been stuck for the bottom half of workers since 1973. Further, 20.5 million people earn incomes below half the poverty line, a disturbing increase of 8 million since 2000. Union membership has steadily dropped over the years, and millennials are stuck in a low wage existence, shut out of the middle class with enormous student debt to pay off. However, a movement of low wage workers is calling for minimum wage hikes and calling out abusive employers, in the hopes of turning the tide of public opinion and changing socioeconomic policy.
The circumstances in which America finds itself cry out for a War on Poverty 2.0. Tackling endemic poverty and eradicating the structural inequities in society are necessary in order to allow the nation to live up to its full potential. People need a more effective safety net, and good jobs with a living wage. Is there enough political will to fight the war? Possibly, but ultimately, it will take a national movement and public pressure to make that happen.