Who won and who lost in the War on Poverty?

February 4, 2014

Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty," declared 50 years ago in January, was shaped by pressure from the Black Freedom struggle mobilizing in both the North and South--but also the conservatism of U.S. politics just emerging from the McCarthy era. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, author of the forthcoming Rats, Riots and Revolution: Black Housing in the 1960s, explains the background to the declaration of a War on Poverty--and what came of it.

IN HIS very first State of the Union address in January 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared an "unconditional war on poverty in America."

The War on Poverty was intended to be an amalgam of several localized pilot programs aimed at lifting the "hard-core" poor out of poverty. These already existing programs were a part of Johnson's larger domestic agenda that he called the "Great Society"--which was premised on the idea that the affluence of U.S. society could be used to improve the infrastructure, education and health care for the benefit of everyone.

The so-called war on poverty was declared in response to international and domestic pressures on the newly crowned superpower. Outside of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal during the 1930s, Johnson's Great Society initiative produced the greatest number of domestic social welfare programs in U.S. history, including Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, Head Start and more.

Using his typical triumphalist rhetoric, Johnson confidently declared that "[t]he richest nation on Earth can afford to win" the War on Poverty.

Lyndon Johnson giving the State of the Union address in which he announced the War on Poverty
Lyndon Johnson giving the State of the Union address in which he announced the War on Poverty

Politically charged debates continue to this day as to whether the War on Poverty was a success or failure. Liberals celebrate what they believe to have been the heyday of progressive public policy and call for a new war on poverty to be declared. The right wing castigates the War on Poverty as the quintessence of big government and liberalism gone awry.

Ronald Reagan was blunt in his assessment of the priorities of the Great Society agenda, declaring, "There is one reason for inflation in America, and that is simply that government for too long has been spending too much money...[T]oo much government, too much red tape, too many taxes and too many regulations...[are]robbing our people of the prosperity that is rightfully theirs."

The 50th anniversary of Johnson's declaration of war has reignited the debate over the persistence of poverty and inequality in the U.S. But while Democrats and Republicans will joust to score political points on this issue, this anniversary is particularly poignant today as economic inequality continues to grow in the U.S.

Fifty years later, more people live in poverty in the U.S. than ever--46.5 million people, or around 15 percent of the population, live at or below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and many millions more hover right above this artificially low measure. Four out of every five Americans, of all races and ethnicities, will experience near-poverty, unemployment or reliance on welfare programs at some point in their lives, the Associated Press reported last year.

But this issue has taken on a new urgency in recent months because of the very visible struggles of low-wage workers along with the ever-widening gap between the richest Americans and the rest of the country--which together have refocused discussions on why there is poverty in the richest country in the world, and whether anything can be done about it.

Cold War Liberalism and the "War" on Poverty

By superficial measures, Johnson's War on Poverty was a success. The number of people classified by government statistics as living in poverty dropped from 22 percent in 1960 to 11 percent in 1971. But what did this really mean?

The federal government used a somewhat arbitrary demarcation to distinguish the poor from the non-poor. Multiple factors went into setting a poverty line of $3,000 in annual income in 1963, at a time when the median annual income in the U.S. was $6,000. By this measure, 20 percent of Americans lived in poverty. By 1976, the median annual income had risen to $15,000, and 20 percent of Americans still received half that amount--but the official poverty line had fallen much lower than half of the median income, so the rate of those living in poverty was far lower.

The conservative way that the federal government measured poverty reflected what would become a generally limited and conservative approach to ending poverty in the U.S., despite the hyperbolic language about war and eradication.

This runs counter to the popular fables about how poverty came into focus for U.S. politicians--because President John F. Kenney, born into a very wealthy family, stumbled upon widespread poverty during a trip to Appalachia. Others claim that socialist Michael Harrington's book The Other America exposed Americans to the horrors of deprivation in the land of plenty.

These make for good folk tales showing that our political leaders do the right thing when the wrong thing is brought to their attention. It also fits neatly with the narrative of Kennedy and Johnson as the ambassadors of postwar liberalism and good government.

In reality, Americans were more than familiar with poverty and deprivation in their midst. The Great Depression of the 1930s had taken place a generation earlier, when rent riots, sit-down strikes and the radical politics of socialists and communists became popular among hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans.

Ultimately, the Second World War pulled the U.S. economy out of the Great Depression--but this alone didn't squelch the radicalism that flowered during the tumultuous 1930s. The Red Scare, or McCarthyism, was the ideological backlash to the insurgency of the 1930s.

Not only was the left purged from the labor movement, but also any critique of the U.S. society was viewed as suspicious and a potential threat. People were fired from their jobs, put in prison--and even executed, in the case of the Rosenbergs--for what amounted to having political opinions that diverged from the status quo, including anti-racism or critiques of poverty in a wealthy country.

This political repression was driven and magnified by Cold War politics. The rivalry between the U.S. and the former USSR as they battled for influence over a world that was rapidly shedding its colonial map created domestic pressures within the U.S. America's claims to be a "beacon of democracy" and the center of the "free enterprise system" were complicated by a home front that was much more complex.

Johnson made it clear he was attuned to these debates in a speech to business leaders promoting his War on Poverty programs:

I am proud to say to you that we are standing up, we are resisting, and we are trying to halt the envelopment of freedom anywhere in the world. Although there are more than 120 nations in the world, and although there are dozens of nations that have been born in the last decade, we have not lost a single nation to communism since 1959.

These international events intersected with the largest internal migration in U.S. history, as millions of Black and white Southerners left their backward home region for the economic promises of the urban North and West. The movement of millions of African Americans into the cities had multiple effects on American politics, domestically and internationally.

The treatment of African Americans and Black foreign dignitaries when they traveled to Washington, D.C., and suffered the indignities of Jim Crow racism created a political problem for the projection of U.S. capitalism as an alternative to Soviet "communism." The very public displays of American racism--and, more importantly, its codification as Jim Crow in the South--constrained U.S. influence and instead focused attention on American hypocrisy.

The urbanization of African Americans also complicated the postwar narrative rooted in the rhetoric about an American Dream, built on unbridled riches and social mobility. Far from finding a land of hope in the North, African Americans encountered job and housing discrimination, substandard and underfunded schools, police harassment and the disappointment and bitterness of continuing to be locked out of the supposed promise of American affluence.

These conditions moved from the edges to the center of political debate when politicians of both parties began jockeying for the Black vote. African Americans had been moving into Northern cities throughout the postwar era, but their vote became decisive in the 1960 presidential election that pitted John F. Kennedy against the Republican Richard Nixon. With fractures threatening to pull apart the Democratic Party, Kennedy appealed for African American votes by referring to an "urban crisis" of substandard housing, "slum" living conditions and poverty.

It wasn't just legal discrimination against African Americans that represented a political problem for the U.S.--poverty was also an indictment of the American system. The Cold War context for the debate about poverty and inequality in the US was always right beneath the surface. Johnson, for example, described the contest between East and West as "a struggle" between two distinct "philosophies":

Don't you tell me for a moment that we can't outproduce and outwork and outright any communistic system in the world. Because if you try to tell me otherwise, you tell me that slaves can do better than free men, and I don't believe they can. I would rather have an executive vice president...than to have a commissar!

The War's Unlikely General

By the time Johnson--who became president after Kennedy's assassination in November 1963--made his declaration of war against poverty in 1964, African American protests were in full swing, both North and South. The 1963 March on Washington brought the struggles of African Americans against Jim Crow in the South and for jobs and equality in the North into a single freedom movement.

The rise of Black protest, combined with a recognition of the threat posed by growing inequality and the perception that affluence wasn't accessible to everyone, informed the political decisions about how to respond to poverty in the U.S. Johnson, in a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1964, said as much:

I never want to contemplate talking to the builders and the owners of America about something they once owned here. But before you get too cocky, please remember that you are outnumbered in the world 17 to 1, and don't put it on a religious basis or on a numbers basis or on a class basis or on a race basis, because there are a good many more of them than there are of you.

Please always remember that if we do nothing to wipe out these ancient enemies of ignorance and illiteracy and poverty and disease, and if we allow them to accumulate... If a peaceful revolution to get rid of these things--illiteracy, and these ancient enemies of mankind that stalk the earth, where two-thirds of the masses are young and are clamoring and are parading and are protesting and are demonstrating now for something to eat and wear and learn and health--[then] a violent change is inevitable.

Johnson has been memorialized as a liberal giant, but in reality, he was a Cold Warrior who vigorously championed "free enterprise"--and, in return, won lopsided backing from the most powerful corporations in the U.S. in the 1964 presidential election. Some of this was because business knew that the right-wing Republican candidate Barry Goldwater couldn't win. But business also understood that Johnson shared their agenda of low taxes, high profits and an unquestioned defense of capitalism.

The Johnson-Humphrey ticket raised more than $4 million from big business--a large sum at the time, thanks to numerous fundraising dinners and direct appeals to lobbyists. As a result, three-quarters of the Johnson campaign's funds came from corporations. Leading up to the 1964 election, the Johnson Administration formed what it called the President's Club, which included 4,000 top corporate executives and their advisers. There was a thousand-dollar fee to join the club, which guaranteed members an opportunity to meet the president in person.

Businessman Henry Ford II, head of the Ford Motor Co., also organized executives into the National Independent Council to back Johnson. Among the corporate interests represented in the Council were investment banks, Inland Steel, Kaiser and the oil conglomerate Texaco.

Then there were the former corporate leaders who were part of Johnson's Cabinet--Robert McNamara, for example, was a top executive and one-time president of Ford before becoming defense secretary.

Johnson stated his clear vision of solving urban problems through a partnership with business:

American business has a large stake in resolving the problems of urbanization. For cities are the place where the markets for the businessman's products are. Cities are the places where commerce and trade--manufacturing and distribution take place...Our cities have been built on a partnership between government and private business...The partnership is..."the new interdependence" and is based on wide areas of mutual interest.

Johnson's optimism about a partnership between business and the state was mutual. A pamphlet produced by McGraw-Hill Publications articulated the relationship, in the context of new opportunities presented by the unraveling urban crisis:

If you ignore the crisis, slums could siphon off more and more of your profits: slums are a luxury few cities can afford, and much of what it costs comes from taxes and business. Costs multiply from police and fire insurance...If you ignore the crisis, you may be overlooking a potential big market: The city has always been a social and economic necessity for businessmen. If today's sick cities can be cured--if ghetto dwellers can be better housed, better educated and above all, better employed--new and profitable markets will open up for business. Even the process of saving the cities creates new business opportunities...in construction, for example.

In other words, far from the War on Poverty being shaped by heady idealism, it was the product of a complex set of interacting factors, influenced by Cold War anti-communism, which included an inbuilt hostility to social welfare programs as "creeping socialism," an embrace of free-market principles, and a quasi-religious faith that the private sector was more capable of ending poverty than government programs.

As Johnson bragged to businessmen, the fight against poverty was intended to turn "tax eaters into taxpayers."

The Limits of the War on Poverty

Lyndon Johnson's declaration of a war on poverty may have been politically grandiose, but the actual legislative proposals were limited in their substance.

The War on Poverty was shaped simultaneously by, on the one hand, conservatism in formal politics; and on the other, by the movement from below led by African Americans demanding freedom and equality--which forced a section of the U.S. ruling class to address these issues or risk losing legitimacy at home and abroad in a rapidly changing world.

The content of the War on Poverty reflected these contradicting pressures. It did not aim to redistribute wealth to those who lacked financial means. As a staff member of Johnson's Council of Economic Advisers put it, "[A] politically acceptable program must avoid completely the use of the term 'inequality' or of the term 'redistribution' of income or wealth."

Instead, the legislation had nebulous aims that were bound up in creating "opportunity," while relying on what its proponents called "a hand up, and not a handout."

Thus, the 1964 legislation that created the War on Poverty was named the Economic Opportunity Act. This emphasis on "opportunity," as opposed to entitlements or guarantees against poverty, was in line with a politics that didn't find fault in the economic system, but located blame in the deficiencies of individuals.

Johnson wanted to make it clear that his proposals for ending poverty weren't a throwback to the New Deal:

The first thing I did was to reject the expedient of make-work sedatives. I have seen the [Works Progress Administration]. I worked very closely with it back in 1933, '34, and '35, but instead of having make-work sedatives, I wanted to go after the causes, and I wanted to produce a cure, and I think you know the record...The emphasis, and all of our actions, are on the importance of private investment.

Johnson further elaborated on this conservative approach in a letter written to Congress as a motivation for passing the legislation: "The war on poverty is not a struggle to support people, to make them dependent on the generosity of others. It is a struggle to give people a chance. It is an effort to allow them to develop and use their capacities."

The limited vision of the War on Poverty led to a focus on vocational education and big subsidies for businesses participating in job training for "hard-core" unemployed young men. There were programs intended to facilitate "community action" in allocating limited anti-poverty funds, but these weren't serious attempts to grapple with the changing American economy and the dislocation of a Black urban workforce.

Thus, one of the central programs set up under the War on Poverty legislation was the Job Corps program, which claimed as its goal updating the skills of unemployed young men. More than 300,000 applied for a position in the Job Corps, but there were only 10,000 slots.

Under the Job Corps program, the federal government paid Fortune 500 companies between $8,000 and $11,000 per participant to train them in basic vocational and personal hygiene skills. As was pointed out more than once at Congressional hearings, for the same amount, the young participants could have gone to Harvard University or the University of Chicago instead.

Studies found that six months after they participated in the Job Corps, 28 percent were unemployed, and another 30 percent had jobs in fields that had nothing to do with their Job Corps training. These were paltry results for a $100 million anti-poverty program.

Meanwhile, when Johnson administration staff suggested a small surtax on cigarette sales to generate an additional $1 billion in revenue to fund War on Poverty programs, the idea didn't exactly win over the president. As an aide described, "I have never seen a colder response from the president. He just--absolute blank stare--implied even without opening his mouth...We weren't even going to discuss that one."

The conservative approach toward how to fight the "war" was reflected in the measly amounts asked for and received to carry out the battle.

According to the federal government's conservative estimates, there were 35 million poor people living in the U.S. at the time Johnson announced his legislation. Some experts had estimated that it would cost up to $11 billion annually to pull all Americans above the poverty line--but Johnson's proposal for ending poverty offered up only $1.5 billion.

The War on Poverty was being fought with nickels and dimes, while Johnson was cutting taxes for the rich. In 1964, Johnson pushed through a whopping $10 billion tax cut that reduced the highest marginal tax rate, paid only by the richest of the rich, from 90 percent to 65 percent. The tax rate on corporate profits was reduced from 52 percent to 46 percent.

At the same time as it was fighting poverty and building a Great Society on the cheap, the Johnson administration was spending enormous sums on the Vietnam War and more to send a man to the moon--the ultimate expression of the Cold War rivalry winning out over human needs.

While the Johnson administration talked big, it essentially shifted funds from existing programs to the new anti-poverty programs. A New York Times reporter described the administration's self-imposed constraints as a "Franklin Delano Hoover twist."

Likewise, Johnson didn't advocate the creation of Cabinet-level positions to institutionalize the fight against poverty. The lack of an institutional home for the welfare state left the budgets for various programs even more vulnerable to political posturing in Congress. The end result was inconsistent funding for anti-poverty programs, even at their height in the 1960s.

The contradiction of claiming to wage a war on poverty with inadequate funding and lackluster political support eventually blew up in Johnson's face. Months after the government pledged to fight poverty, the rebelliousness that Johnson had warned business leaders about took on a new form of the urban rebellions, with Black youth and workers giving unmistakable expression to their rage.

Did the War on Poverty Succeed or Fail?

The U.S. did experience reduced social inequality in the mid- and late 1960s, with greater advances for working people in general and African Americans in particular.

But the main reasons for this were the growth of public-sector work and public-sector unionization. From 1964 to 1968, union membership in the public sector expanded by 2 million, and Blacks and women made up a disproportionate number of the new members. Unionization and strike action were successful in waging a real war on poverty, as workers resisted government wage controls and the corrosive impact of inflation.

Ultimately, the War on Poverty itself was a failure, but not for the reasons that conservatives claim. This was not a case of big government run amok, but of the government not going far enough. The only war that Lyndon Johnson spent real money on was the war in Vietnam. His administration fought the so-called "War on Poverty" with both hands tied behind its back.

That there were any War on Poverty programs at all was a testament of the struggle of working people, led by African Americans, demanding better in a land of plenty. Johnson's Great Society agenda was designed to coopt that desire and bury it in bureaucracy and shortchanged budgets.

The persistence of poverty today shows that a real war against it has never been fought. Once again, it will be the struggles of ordinary people that decide whether one ever is.

Further Reading

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