Tracing the War on Poverty
Julie Ault & Martin Beck
Tracing the War on Poverty
One of the major twentieth-century initiatives by the U.S. Government to rectify the disparity between affluent and poor Americans was the 1960s War on Poverty. By the late 1950s, increasing juvenile delinquency and crime and the breakdown of families represented to some a new social crisis. This was all the more notable as it occurred against the background of what was perceived as national economic well-being. These social problems were largely identified as the consequences of economic stratification.
While campaigning for the presidency in West Virginia in 1960, John F. Kennedy witnessed the pervasive effects of chronic unemployment and poverty. Concurrently, several critical analyses of poverty were published, including Michael Harrington’s The Other America. Harrington reflected on the influence of his book twenty-two years later: “The Other America was published in 1962 and was struck by lightning in 1963. In January of that year, Dwight Macdonald wrote a long review of the book in the New Yorker, which made poverty a topic of conversation in the socially conscious intellectual world of the Northeast. John Kennedy heard of those discussions and, as two members of his administration later told me, read The Other America and was moved by it. It was, they said, one of many factors in his decision to make poverty a central issue in the forthcoming campaign against Barry Goldwater.” President Kennedy made fighting poverty a priority of his political agenda. In 1963, his administration conducted studies on race, poverty and unemployment resulting in a national program and social service legislation to help counter poverty. After Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson embraced the initiative and formalized it as the War on Poverty.
In his 1964 State of the Union Address Johnson declared “unconditional war on poverty in America,” and stated, “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 aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” The War on Poverty initiative was intended to decrease poverty through economic growth and through creating new – as well as expanding existing – social programs. Development and distribution of antipoverty services were to be administered through communities.
What began in early 1964 on a rather ad hoc basis, involving numerous agencies and community groups, was soon transformed into a coherent plan in the form of the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act (EOA). The Economic Opportunity Act embodied education, training programs, job opportunities and healthcare services rather than financial assistance or income guarantees. The EOA stated, “Although the economic well-being and prosperity of the United States have progressed to a level surpassing any achieved in world history, and although these benefits are widely shared throughout the Nation, poverty continues to be the lot of a substantial number of our people. … It is, therefore, the policy of this Nation to eliminate the paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty in this Nation by opening to everyone the opportunity for education and training, the opportunity to work, and the opportunity to live in decency and dignity.” The Senate and the House of Representatives passed the Economic Opportunity Act (primarily with Democratic party votes), and President Johnson then signed the bill into law on August 20, 1964. The Act established the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) with Sargent Shriver as its director.
President Johnson signing the Poverty Bill (Economic Opportunity Act), August 20, 1964. Courtesy Lyndon Baines Johnson Library.
Not everyone was won over by the dramatic pronouncement of the War on Poverty. Speaking at an antipoverty program town meeting in Harlem in 1965, William F. Anderson declared, “The War on Poverty is phony – as phony as Social Security and Medicare. There is not an organization in the U.S. that wants to end poverty.” To what degree the War on Poverty was rhetorical and superficial or, worse yet, a public-relations stunt, and to what degree it represented sincere and lasting commitment to encouraging social and economic parity, was unclear. Beyond the representational benefits from publicizing social inequities and promoting community action, the War on Poverty concretely consisted of the OEO, which developed and operated programs including the Community Action Program, Job Corps, Work-Training and Work-Study Programs, Volunteers in Service to America, and Head Start.
From early on, the OEO struggled with administrative problems, competing goals, infighting and confusion. Funding to and through the OEO became increasingly complicated and competitive. Debates, often acrimonious, ensued over where authority was located – with the Federal government, State and local politicians, community action organizations or with poor citizens themselves. Among other factors, these territorial conflicts, along with the fact that Johnson turned his focus to escalating the war in Vietnam, meant that in the last half of the 1960s many of the programs operating under the auspices of the OEO were channeled into other departments or dismantled. In 1974 President Richard Nixon dissolved the OEO altogether.
Judging from recent literature on the subject, the consensus is that the War on Poverty benefited many but fell far short of its rhetoric. While the number of Americans defined as poor decreased temporarily during the last half of the 1960s, the program did not effectively attack poverty on a structural level. Communications specialist David Zarefsky has written, “Perhaps the most obvious discrepancy was between the ‘unconditional war’ goals and the funds appropriated for prosecution of the campaign. Most programs were not budgeted beyond the pilot-project level.” Sociologist and politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan commented in the early seventies that the program was “oversold and underfinanced to the point that its failure was almost a matter of design.” Professor Michael B. Katz stated, “John F. Kennedy did not intend to antagonize business or modify its power and privileges. Neither did Lyndon Johnson. Rather, through the magic of economic growth, they expected simultaneously to strengthen American capitalism, ameliorate suffering and injustice, and reduce the impact of racism on black Americans.” He concluded that despite the fact that the causes and the symptoms of poverty were not eradicated, “between the early 1960s and the mid-1970s, new or expanded government programs, much more than economic growth, reduced poverty, hunger, malnutrition, and diseases; increased the access of the poor to important social services; and lowered barriers to political participation, employment, housing, and education for black Americans.”
The War on Poverty did not call for redistribution of wealth to redress the “paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty.” Historian James T. Patterson has written, “the poverty program, like other government efforts of the early 1960s, reflected a conservative application of structuralist observations. The planners recognized that millions of the so-called new poor were not in the labor force, that they need income maintenance more than opportunity. They knew that formidable structural forces like technological change, shortages of decent paying jobs and racial discrimination blocked the opportunities of many who were willing and able to work.” As Harrington put it, “There never was a massive investment of billions of dollars in radical innovations that challenged the very structure of power in the United States.” The power structure of American capitalism and its accompanying socio-economic stratification remained intact, as they continue today.
Robert F. Clark, The War on Poverty: History, Selected Programs and Ongoing Impact (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 2002).
Michael L. Gillette, Launching the War on Poverty: An Oral History (New York: Tawayne Publishers, 1996).
Michael Harrington, The Other America: Poverty in the United States (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962).
Michael Harrington, The New American Poverty (New York: Penguin Books, 1985). Lyndon Baines Johnson, State of the Union Address (January 8, 1964).
Michael B. Katz, In The Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America (New York: BasicBooks, 1986).
James T. Patterson, America’s Struggle Against Poverty in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).
88th Congress, 2nd Session of the U.S. Senate, The War on Poverty: The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1964).
David Zarefsky, President Johnson’s War on Poverty: Rhetoric and History (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1986).