Fifty years after President Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty,” there’s still a fight over its legacy. While showing the limits of government intervention to create economic opportunity, the War on Poverty also changed rural America for the better, says Timothy Collins.
President Lyndon Johnson announces the War on Poverty in his State of the Union Address to Congress on January 8, 1964: “It will not be a short or easy struggle. … But we will not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”
The post-World War II years saw widespread prosperity across much of the United States, especially in rapidly growing suburban areas. For many, the standard of living after the 1940s was good and getting better as the 1960s opened.
“For many” is the operative phrase here. As the United States reached its zenith in power and wealth during the 1960s and 1970s, liberal leaders saw deep, complex social flaws that left many people living in rural and urban areas languishing. Postwar prosperity suggested opportunities to stretch the American dream to be more inclusive, to nurture racial and economic equality.
Liberals of the 1960s inherited the ideals of the Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal activism, which grew out of the emergency of the Great Depression and altered government at all levels in its efforts to fight unemployment, hunger and poverty. World War II brought the country back to full production. Fears of a renewed, widespread depression after the war never materialized. But poverty remained a serious problem.
When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, planning was already underway to implement intensive anti-poverty programs. The need was real. Perhaps a fifth of the nation lived below the poverty level, intolerable in a society that considered itself to be the wealthiest on earth. Kentucky was the unfortunate poster child of poverty, with about 38% of its residents living below the poverty line in 1960.
Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, quickly moved forward with the late president’s plans. Johnson, whose political career started in Texas early in the 1930s, became an ardent New Dealer. He served in both the U.S. House and Senate before becoming vice president in 1960. On January 8, 1964, Johnson announced his War on Poverty in his State of the Union Address even as he announced federal budget reductions. His presidency, dubbed “the Great Society,” was a ringing reverberation of the New Deal:
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.
… 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.
In a special message to Congress on March 16, 1964, Johnson offered more details for his Equal Opportunity Act:
It will give almost half a million underprivileged young Americans the opportunity to develop skills, continue education and find useful work.
It will give every American community the opportunity to develop a comprehensive plan to fight its own poverty – and help them to carry out their plans.
It will give dedicated Americans the opportunity to enlist as volunteers in the war against poverty.
It will give many workers and farmers the opportunity to break through particular barriers which bar their escape from poverty.
It will give the entire nation the opportunity for a concerted attack on poverty through the establishment, under my direction, of the Office of Economic Opportunity, a national headquarters for the war against poverty.
Looking back 50 years, with pessimism about government and the nation so rampant now, it seems improbable that a liberal administration could accomplish so much in such a short time:
Civil rights legislation, while not directly part of the War on Poverty, was clearly in the spirit of the times that sought to empower people in their communities. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was intended to end discrimination in public accommodations and government services that blocked the ability of African Americans to fully partake in American society. The 1965 Voting Rights Act weakened barriers to racial discrimination in polling places.
The legacy of the War on Poverty is marked by successes, especially in the shorter term of a decade or so. Like the New Deal, 1960s’ anti-poverty programs fostered community development in rural and urban areas and increased economic and educational opportunities for many, but not all. On the other hand, time has shown the limits of what government and communities can do in the face of broader squalls of the geopolitical economy, including the flight of industries both within the country and overseas, plus the costly and wasteful war in Vietnam that put the nation in a destructive guns-and-butter conundrum.
Results of the War on Poverty were mixed, but many programs were successful in the long run. The Russell Sage Foundation points out successes and shortcomings in a book, Legacies of the War on Poverty. Using 50 years of data, the book concludes that poverty and overt racial discrimination would be more entrenched today had the Johnson Administration not taken the lead in countering them.
The War on Poverty seems foreign to critics today who espouse limited government and survival of the fittest in the marketplaces of society. Johnson’s generation of Democrats spoke a different language. Equal opportunity was for individuals, but government also had a vital role in assuring equality for minority groups that faced discrimination based on race or geography.
Johnson’s language engendered a sense of commonwealth (we’re all in this together) and a hope for a brighter future, especially for the disenfranchised. Government was supposed to do good things for citizens. Whatever Johnson’s failings, where poverty and discrimination were concerned, the president had not only a “can-do” vocabulary. He had a “should-do” vocabulary. It was, even then, the language of audacious American hopes and dreams for equality that could be and would be at least partly fulfilled. Poor inner cities and rural communities—the Other America—needed to be included so America could reach its fullest potential.
Johnson was straightforward in announcing why his anti-poverty program should be passed on January 8, 1964:
Let us carry forward the plans and programs of John Fitzgerald Kennedy – not because of our sorrow or sympathy, but because they are right. …
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.
The despair of poverty and racism turned to opportunity: It was then, and remains now, the right thing to do.
Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.