Fifty years ago, on Jan. 8, 1964, the United States launched a War on Poverty.
President Lyndon Johnson, in his State of the Union address that year, called for passage of an Economic Opportunity Act. The legislation would establish an Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to coordinate local use of federal funds to fight poverty. At the time, the nation's poverty rate (the percentage of people living below a defined "poverty" income level) was 19 percent.
The new OEO, and the War on Poverty as originally conceived, would exist for only 10 years. Much of the present debate about the agency's success or failure is about programs and outcomes that were not directly related to it.
I was working at the time for Sen. Hubert Humphrey, the sponsor of 1960s-era civil-rights and anti-poverty proposals. That summer Sen. Humphrey would become Johnson's vice presidential running mate.
Later, working in the Johnson White House, it was truly inspiring to be among a remarkable group of Cabinet members, White House staff, rank-and-file administrators and labor- and private-sector leaders committed to breaking poverty's hold on a significant percentage of the American population. (Washington Sens. Warren Magnuson and Henry (Scoop) Jackson also were at the front of the effort.)
Sargent Shriver, who would head OEO (and also the Peace Corps) was a weak administrator but a beloved and dedicated leader. We talked then of "the invisible poor," often unseen by other Americans, except when passing on freeways through impoverished neighborhoods or rural areas. We aimed to raise their visibility and, then, the quality of their lives. It also was inspiring to visit Job Corps and Head Start programs in action and, down the road, meet Job Corps and other OEO program graduates. A wonderful spirit pervaded the whole enterprise.
The 50th anniversary has been marked by avid debate, from all sides, about the success or failure of the War on Poverty in the years since its launch. The debate, for the most part, has been about public vs. private models for eradicating poverty and not about specifics of the War on Poverty itself. Much talk has focused on current issues: extension of long-term unemployment benefits, a raise in the minimum wage and growing income inequality.
The inequality is disturbing, owing to its cause: unprecedented greed by self-obsessed financial and business executives. But if executive compensation were cut by two-thirds tomorrow, it would have little effect on the incomes of those still living in poverty.
LBJ's 1964 proposals, and the OEO program, were only one part of a larger strategy to help deliver Americans out of poverty and into good-paying jobs. The '64 initiatives had their origins in President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, trial-and-error federal initiatives to help the poor.
The centerpiece of Roosevelt's effort was the 1935 Social Security Act, whose passage created the first-ever retirement safety net for senior citizens.
World War II reduced poverty by raising employment. Working-age Americans either served in the armed forces or engaged in the homefront war effort. There were fears that the post-war military demobilization and transition to a civilian economy might take the steam out of the recovery. Instead, America experienced an unprecedented boom.
By the late 1950s, however, there was economic stagnation and, in 1959, a 22.5 percent poverty rate. President John F. Kennedy, in his 1960 presidential campaign against Richard Nixon, pledged to "get America moving again." The chair of his Council of Economic Advisors, Walter Heller, brought Keynesian economics to the White House.
JFK successfully proposed legislation and policies to liberalize global trade; business and personal tax cuts to stimulate growth; and new incentives for domestic investment. Together, those policies provided a basis for macroeconomic growth. But the poverty rate continued to hover near 20 percent. Kennedy directed Heller to examine ways to reduce it.
After Kennedy's November 1963 assassination, Heller proposed to President Johnson that he make war on poverty the centerpiece of his State of the Union address. LBJ needed no persuasion. He idolized Franklin Roosevelt and saw this as an opportunity to complete FDR's New Deal initiatives. Johnson, a populist at heart, was drawn to the task.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!