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The War on Poverty, 50 years on

The War on Poverty was about improving job skills, education and health, not eradicating poverty, per se. Those debating its success or failure would do well to remember that.
Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty turned 50 this year.

Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty turned 50 this year. www.govexec.com

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.


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Comments:

Posted Sat, Jan 11, 9:46 p.m. Inappropriate

Fifty years and nearly $20,000,000,000,000 later, poverty is down from 19% to 15%. Success indeed.

Posted Sat, Jan 11, 10:42 p.m. Inappropriate

The government and it's presidents are always going to war over something. Poverty can join the list that includes drugs, obesity, education, etc. None have been or will ever be successful. The government fails at these wars for a variety of reasons, but the main reason that the war on poverty is a dismal failure? The government doesn't create family wage jobs. It's those kind of jobs that raise the poor up from the bottom rung of the economic ladder.

The government doesn't really care either. A look at the last two administrations show just how little they care about the poor. Both parties, at one time or another, had complete control of the government and they did nothing to help the poor. Zero. But wait! In 2014 somebody woke up the current President and informed him that there were poor people in the United States. His first question; How can we cash in on this and maintain power? Is there a plan in place that can address the issue? No. And if there was, this administration's track record on roll out of new plans is dismal. Frighteningly so.

The current crop of Democrats and Republicans are more interested in party purity and power and less in serving all citizens. They both make the appropriate noise like they care but actions speak louder and to no surprise, their words are worthless. So the poor will continue in their proper place in society. Don't believe it, name something meaningful that politicians have done to help the poor.

Djinn

Posted Sun, Jan 12, 6 a.m. Inappropriate

Maybe we should stop importing poverty from other countries by stopping the flow of illegal aliens and encouraging those here illegally to return home.

Cameron

Posted Sun, Jan 12, 6:36 a.m. Inappropriate

It's been interesting to see huge numbers cited as the cost of a War on Poverty to date. The usual formulation: "We've wasted trillions
without bringing down the poverty rate."

I doubt the numbers. As my piece points out, the original War on Poverty, run by OEO, lasted only 10 years. Any number of government programs, in the period since, could be counted as being part of a nominal War on Poverty---entitlement-program spending, various education, job training, and health programs, an earned-income tax credit, etc.---or not.

Any wasteful government spending, for any purpose, should be eliminated. But, in calculating the money spent to lift employment and fight poverty, great care should be taken to be sure the numbers are honest and relevant. Most of those presently assaulting a War on Poverty may be assaulting a straw man. As I note, neither the public nor private sectors alone can address the issue effectively.

I agree that recent Presidents have talked a good game on job creation and poverty reduction but have not been sufficiently serious about the mission.

Posted Sun, Jan 12, 6:50 p.m. Inappropriate

By any measure government programs - Medicare, food stamps, WICK, SS, and others have substantially reduced the numbers of elderly, children, and infirm from poverty. Completely eliminated? Of course not.

War on poverty has now morphed into the war on poor. Congress recently REDUCED the food stamp allocation per meal. How can anyone seriously make the claim that a person getting food stamps @ $1.40 a meal think this is sufficient never mind some lap of luxury.

It really says something about our county when we allow criminal action by banks, stealing billions take a pass while trying to punch larger holes in the minimal social safety net. The national minim wage has not kept up with inflation and certainly has not reflected rises in productivity.

Treker

Posted Sun, Jan 12, 7:51 p.m. Inappropriate

By any measure government programs - Medicare, food stamps, WICK, SS, and others have substantially reduced the numbers of elderly, children, and infirm from poverty. Completely eliminated? Of course not.

It be more convincing if you had some stats to back up the claim. None of the programs you cite reduce poverty. It a pipe dream of liberals but without any proof in the real world. They don't provide living wage jobs, don't promote education or family. The best that could be said for any of them is that they allow folks to survive, barely. The working poor eek out a living and no amount of free government help, changes their employment status from minimum wage to living wage. It's even worse if you don't work. read it here

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/12/20/AR2010122005385_2.html?sid=ST2010122005561

Bottom line: In todays America, the government can keep people alive with a multitude of programs but can't create jobs. It's a foreign concept to 99.9% of bureaucrats and elected officials..

Djinn

Posted Sun, Jan 12, 10:28 p.m. Inappropriate

In 2011 Social Security lifted over 21 million adults, children, and disabled out of poverty.
http://billmoyers.com/2013/08/16/happy-birthday-social-security

Since the late 1960s the elderly poverty rate has dropped 30%. The peak of child poverty was reached during the Reagan era but has dropped 10% since then.

The federal minimum wage has not kept up with inflation and would be about $20/hr if tied to worker productivity. Would be about $$30 if it tracked the benefits reaped by the upper 1%.
http://billmoyers.com/2013/02/22/rethinking-our-minimum-wage/

None of these programs reduce poverty? This assertion would be given some credence if you could produce any facts, which you can't.

Gotta love the GOP telling the poor to pull themselves up while standing on their throats.

Just like Nancy Reagan's motto for drug abuse the GOP has a new motto for the homeless "Just get a house!".

Treker

Posted Mon, Jan 13, 7:19 p.m. Inappropriate

Poverty is an imaginary line that the government created using the formula, three times the cost of the “minimum food diet” as defined five decades ago. If you're a dollar above the line you're not poverty stricken, you're just poor and that's the sole aim of these programs, push them above the imaginary line.

Today the official government position is 16% of the population is below the red line. If I were drawing my social security this year, I'd be below the line. Next year I'd might be above the line. The point is that when you're poor, poverty is a meaningless term. It's a line for liberals Democrats and conservatives Republicans to fight about.

Pushing people above the line doesn't make the problem go away, but it makes certain of those that argue feel better. That would be you.

As I pointed out earlier all these programs do is allow the bottom end of the population to survive. I'm not interested in just those kind of programs. It's akin to feeding caged zoo animals. That's not something to brag about. They don't offer hope for a better future. They just keep them alive to watch the future fade in the rearview mirror.

Djinn

Posted Mon, Jan 13, 7:12 a.m. Inappropriate

The programs have kept folks out of poverty - Treker is correct. But Djinn also is correct that our calculation of the poverty rate is one thing - a living wage is another.

But what always strikes me about the complainers of these programs, which without the situation would be much worse, is that they propose no other solution. What? Just get a decent paying job?

There will always be some percentage of the population, for any number of reasons, will need some type of government support - mental or physical disability, accident, bad luck, or whatever. But we are a rich enough country that we shouldn't have 15% of the population below some meager level of existence. Really?
We can't do better than Serbia? http://www.indexmundi.com/g/r.aspx?v=69

The US is still the only developed country where you could need to go into bankruptcy because of medical bills. Maybe Obamacare will help this a bit and sooner or later we'll lift ourselves away from this underclass status and go to a Medicare for all system.

Lily32

Posted Mon, Jan 13, 10:33 a.m. Inappropriate

One of the main reasons we still have a "war on poverty," is because Social Security (Federal) increases are stolen by the states, and the Federal govt does nothing to stop it. Every time there's a Soc Sec increase, those whose Soc Sec incomes are below the poverty line, thereby qualifying for food stamps, housing vouchers, and Medicaid, have their measly-in-the-first-place Soc Sec increase stolen back by the states, and WA State is no different, by decreasing our food stamps and increasing our Medicaid spend-downs. This is why those on Soc Sec disability who can't work, and seniors whose only source of income is Soc Sec remain on benefits for the rest of their lives. If the Federal govt would do something to stop this practice, and/or the states would stop stealing from their lowest-income citizens, then along with raising the minimum wage for those who work, more people would eventually not have to rely on such benefits. For those who can't work on Soc Sec Disability and srs whose sole source of income is Soc Sec, we should receive full food stamps benefits and lower Medicaid spend-downs until our incomes no longer are below the poverty line. As well, Soc Sec should be strengthened by increasing the benefit of those of us who worked all our lives yet were grossly underpaid (as many women are) to an income far enough above the poverty line so we can afford to buy food without SNAP. So WA State lawmakers, since this is a state the rest of the country looks to for innovation, how about creating legislation that prevents WA State Soc Sec beneficiaries from having our SNAP benefits decreased and Medicaid spend-downs increased until our incomes are enough to survive on.

ctuck622

Posted Mon, Jan 13, 10:51 a.m. Inappropriate

Any history of the War on Poverty should make mention of its intellectual origins (back then in some quarters ideas still mattered). It all flowed forth from Michael Harrington's 1962 book, "The Other America", which initiated the political conversation. The concept of the "invisible poor" was derived from Harrington's thesis that, in its fixation with the glamor of wealth and power, America had lost sight of those toiling at the bottom and just getting by. Since in those days liberal idealism still had some life to it, the good citizens of Camelot seized on this as the next great cause.

Michael Harrington was himself an interesting case. He had come to age in the Catholic Worker movement, then rebelled against the Church. He became an atheist and a democratic socialist, but his polemics still retained the moral fervor of his Catholic Worker roots. I don't think they make people like that any more.

woofer

Posted Mon, Jan 13, 2:29 p.m. Inappropriate

Woofer is correct. Harrington's "Other America" was highly influential in driving discussion of domestic poverty. It was regularly cited by Administration officials as well as writers and activists outside government. (Humorous footnote: There was a Rep. Michael Harrington from Massachusetts who kept getting mixed up with this Michael Harrington and once, as I recall, they were on the same podium at the same meeting). A forgotten man now but important at the time.

Posted Mon, Jan 13, 4:26 p.m. Inappropriate

“While it’s harder than it used to be to get ahead in America, even with a college degree, it’s probably easier (and more comfortable) than ever to just barely get by.”

I think that quote is from a Glenn Reynolds book and it strikes me as accurate and entirely germane. Some of the commenters above may applaud that progression but it does carry risks.

kieth

Posted Tue, Jan 14, 10:33 a.m. Inappropriate

What most contributes to a continuing high poverty rate?
It is what is pushed by the large corporations and most political entities---an assumed unlimited growth.
Business also supports it because it provides cheap labor, and IT is abundant numbers of illegal and legal immigrants.
Thus our schools must deal with large numbers of students who can't speak our language and who have parents with less than an 8th grade education.
And we do this at high cost to the dwindling middle class, and add significantly to the insolvability of every major problem we have.

Posted Tue, Jan 14, 4:56 p.m. Inappropriate

I truly appreciate this concise and evocative recollection of the rational behind the War on Poverty and the programs passed as a part of it or in its wake. Very curious how the Nixon administration focused on set-asides and quotas, which is the very sort of outcome oriented reform liberals are tasked with. They do have one virtue: it is easier to buy off pols if you give people stuff rather than building the stage. Now that is a logic that a Nixonian would understand. I am always amazed that the Community Action Plans were included -- a politician as savvy as LBJ would have known that would empower activists who would immediately create demand for funding.

The history is interesting, but the current state of affairs is depressing, beginning with the misrepresentations of the original aims of the programs. The complexity of programs meant to prevent poverty is also part of the current undoing. So many pieces, so much more opportunity for misunderstanding or fraud and waste. LBJ (or probably Heller) had the right idea for a one-stop shop. And surely the fact that help disappears once someone crosses the poverty line is dispiriting and disincenting. Now it is 50 years behind us, revising and reforming the programs would be a good idea, but that is even less likely (which explains Dems instransigence on SocSec in part). There is one initiative though that could result in dramatic -- universal pre-K. It would be a lot better if Obama and Duncan had concentrated federal money in that, rather than in the usual funneling of money to community college workforce programs. Such programs do provide opportunities, but they also are example of the set-aside, industry subsidy mentality of Nixon.*

*Note: I do think quotas and set asides in federal state and city program should be set aside, since whatever service is tainted by how they provide that service, and they do provide opportunities for public sector cronyism. One quibble: it is simply incorrect to say colleges have quotas for admission, particularly in Washington with I-200. Quotas and set asides only matter where there is selection and most universities are _not_ selective. You may find it hard to get into flagship U from middleclassville without an exceptional record, but state college u will take you if you have a 2.0 and passed the right high school courses. Okay, it is mountain city state, but still. Financial aid is another matter since Pells are meant for low, not middle income students, and the college loan industry has been the real beneficiary of higher tuition. Neverthless, selective colleges have any number of soft indicators that make up how they create a student body, not just what racial group you identify with. It would be nice if journalists even casually did not confirm this right wing myth.

RobCrowe

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