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The War on Poverty, 50 years on

Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty turned 50 this year. Credit:

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.

The 1964 Economic Opportunity Act created a Job Corps that trained workers; the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) and Head Start programs, as well as legal services for the poor and a controversial Community Action program aimed at engaging poor people in local programs affecting them. (Mayors, especially Democratic big-city mayors, wanted Community Action eliminated. They complained that its self-styled, unelected community leaders were causing all kinds of trouble. But the Community Action program stood.)

Not part of the official War on Poverty, but related to it nonetheless, were the Food Stamp Act (1964), Civil Rights Act (1964), Voting Rights Act (1965), Medicare and Medicaid (1965) and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965), whose Title I benefited the poor. A Youth Opportunity program, led by Humphrey, provided summer jobs to teenagers in American big cities, helping them back to school in the fall. These, along with rural anti-poverty programs, became part of an overall Great Society package of policies. Since that time, the War on Poverty and the Great Society have often been lumped together. 

Between 1964 and 1973, the years of OEO's formal life, the poverty rate fell from 17.3 percent to 11.1 percent. Since that time it has bounced back and forth, generally settling around the 15 percent level, though the rate is slightly higher now.

Was the 10-year decline in the poverty rate wholly tied to the 10-year life of OEO per se and the related War on Poverty? Of course not. Historically, the overall economic growth rate, rising then, has been the single largest factor influencing the poverty rate.

Even in the War on Poverty's heyday, no one claimed that its collective policies and programs, by themselves, could eradicate poverty. The War on Poverty was seen as a way to improve job skills, education and health so that people could rise out of poverty.

Vietnam War spending began to overwhelm domestic spending in the late 1960s. In 1973, President Nixon disestablished OEO and scattered its programs to other federal agencies where they got less emphasis. In the meantime, his administration had shifted focus to programs featuring quotas, set-asides and preferences guaranteeing outcomes for defined groups. They began with the so-called Philadelphia Plan guaranteeing a percentage of jobs for minorities in the notoriously discriminatory construction industry and trades.  In an attempt to fight discrimination, the Republican administration had changed the ground on which the War on Poverty was being fought. De facto and controversial quotas, not directly related to poverty reduction, remain in force in employment, college admissions, government contracting and other parts of American life. Criticism of them, ironically, often is directed toward JFK and LBJ, whose agendas did not include them. 

In the mid-1980s I participated in review exercises attempting to determine how a still-persistent poverty rate might be reduced. My personal conclusion from these exercises was that we were on the right track in the 1960s before we were interrupted. That is, wise government macro policy should create conditions for private economic growth. Safety-net programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, should spare citizens from disaster. Targeted programs to lift the skills, education and health of the poor should be made available and open to all meeting eligibility by income level. Neither the Great Society nor War on Poverty sought to create a culture of government dependency or guarantee an outcome to any person or group. (I wrote a speech line at the time which characterized the effort and which Humphrey and occasionally LBJ used: "We seek to create not a welfare state but a state of opportunity.")

The present public-or-private debate about poverty reduction is a dead end. Government financial and economic policies can create a climate for job creation and poverty reduction. Government programs can help give citizens knowledge and skills to get good jobs. Ultimately, it is the private sector which must generate jobs and a way out of poverty. Our economy is neither socialist nor capitalist but mixed.

What was the War on Poverty about? I recall a visit, in the mid-1960s, to a community center in a poor Atlanta neighborhood. It administered a range of OEO programs. In the corner of a large main room sat an old upright piano and stool. "See that piano and that stool?" the office director, a middle-aged black woman, said. "There's lots of music in that piano if only it could be played. It's the same with the young people we serve. There's lots of music and talent and promise in them, if only we can help them get it out."

A few minutes later a teenage girl passed through the room and sat at the piano. She played the heck out of that piano. Yes, indeed.

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