What war on poverty?

50 years later, the U.S. is back where LBJ started

January 8, 2014 7:00AM ET
A woman who identified herself as Jessica sits next to the tent she lives in on August 21, 2013 in Camden, New Jersey. Camden has at least three "tent cities," where many of the homeless in the Southern New Jersey region live.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Shortly after New Year’s I drove through a distressed Tampa, Fla., neighborhood I have known for many years. It was gray and cold, and a light rain pelted my windshield. The streets I traveled looked terrible; every fourth house boarded up, with lots filled with debris and weeds. On the curb by a house that looked pretty good, furniture and assorted belongings were piled — a familiar sign of recent eviction. Two women with shopping carts were picking through the stuff, pulling out items of value.

This neighborhood has had the highest foreclosure rate of any in the city. Since the Great Recession, poverty in the area has climbed from 43 percent to 52 percent. Statistics like that attract nonprofits, some of which have received small grants from Bank of America for things like classes for parenting and financial literacy. These are rather small prices to pay in return for the very profitable predatory loans that helped create the misery on display.

I wondered how we as a nation got to this point. Today marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the so-called war on poverty, the day in 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson gave his first State of the Union address and announced his proposals for fighting poverty. Congress is marking the anniversary by ending unemployment benefits for 1.3 million people who have been out of work for more than a year and cutting food stamps for 47 million people who rely on them to eat. At 15 percent, the poverty rate is the same today as it was in 1965, a year after the so-called war began.

The war appears to be over. Poor people lost.

Actually, it was greatly curtailed soon after it started, defeated by the costlier conflict in Vietnam, followed shortly by President Richard Nixon’s declaration of war on drugs. The U.S. is good at starting wars but typically bad at completing them.

Poverty came into national focus in the early 1960s, with the popularity of Michael Harrington’s riveting book “The Other America.” In the midst of growing optimism and prosperity, Harrington traveled to forgotten pockets of misery in Appalachia, the Deep South, migrant farm labor camps, hidden sweatshops and urban black ghettos. In highly readable prose, he described the despair and deprivation he encountered, the human face of what emerged as staggering contrasts with the shiny portrait of the rest of America. His book found its way to the nightstand of President John F. Kennedy. TV news broadcast scenes of fire hoses turned on peaceful demonstrators, snarling police dogs, club-wielding deputies, the escalating battle over civil rights in the South. These dramatic images helped stoke the national conscience and gave rise to what seemed like a new kind of politics. Empathy was in the air.

New foreign wars, a vastly expanded security apparatus, border control, unprecedented levels of incarceration and massive surveillance programs have continued to outcompete domestic needs, especially for poverty.

After Kennedy’s death and Johnson’s ascension to the presidency, he eagerly embraced the project of ending poverty in history’s most affluent society. He labeled it the Great Society, one with a heart and purse big enough to take care of everyone, a refinancing of the old New Deal. With a newly created Office of Economic Opportunity to coordinate policy and programs, LBJ launched his campaign. The initial formula involved community action programs (CAPs), promoting “maximum feasible participation” by the poor. New programs were developed — Head Start, Job Corps, Legal Services, VISTA, Medicaid and Medicare. They provided quality day care, job training for youth, access to lawyers, a domestic version of the Peace Corps and medical care for the elderly and indigent.

It was a remarkable period of political breakthroughs but one marked by a series of urban black uprisings that frightened politicians and most white people and cast doubt on the direction and speed of civil rights. Race and poverty were inextricable. A backlash against one would go hand in hand with a backlash against the other.

On June 4, 1965, LBJ gave a famous speech at Howard University, which seemed to redouble his support for civil rights but carried some disturbing language about problems in the African-American community. Three days later, Gen. William Westmoreland talked him into a massive expansion of troops in Vietnam. On Aug. 11, the Watts section of Los Angeles exploded in a three day riot that resulted in 34 deaths and over 1,000 injuries. This outbreak prompted a state of panic over what seemed to be a dangerously escalating turn. Days later, the Department of Labor released a report written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a young assistant secretary who helped draft the Howard speech. Titled “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” the future New York senator argued that female-headed households were the underlying cause of what he termed a “tangle of pathology” that was mainly responsible for black poverty. The report gained instant notoriety, opposed by most civil rights leaders but embraced by conservatives and many liberals as explanation for the ungrateful violence of Watts and other restive urban enclaves. This report, combined with growing wariness about CAPs (whose workers were wrongly blamed in the press for inciting urban riots), altered the trajectory of the war on poverty. Rather than community activism, the focus became fixing the pathology of poor people. And the costs of the disastrous war in Vietnam greatly diminished resources for either approach.

New equally misguided foreign wars in the 21st century — along with a vastly expanded security apparatus, border control, unprecedented levels of incarceration and massive surveillance programs — have continued to outcompete domestic needs, especially for poverty. The ineffective approach of blaming poverty on the defective culture and personal shortcomings of poor people remains, although programs meant to alleviate poverty have been cut drastically, and much of the effort has been privatized in nonprofits and philanthropic initiatives. The dilemma that was originally about butter versus guns now has broadened into a losing contest between the needs of the poor and middle class versus those of wealthy bankers and corporations, whose interests are duly represented by lobbyists on Capitol Hill. Potential presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul claims that cutting benefits for the unemployed is actually a favor.

Many recent commentaries about the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s poverty programs stress the benefits that they have brought, and there is truth to these claims, but these gains are offset by unparalleled economic inequality, stubbornly high unemployment, blocked opportunity for higher education, crushing personal debt, declining wages, radical cuts in local and federal programs, assaults on collective bargaining and a potent campaign by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council to roll back not only the Great Society but also the New Deal. We need a new war on poverty, but this one should take aim at the political powerlessness of poor people and the insecure middle class, should reinvigorate community activism and should strive to eliminate the causes of poverty, not just its symptoms.

Susan Greenbaum is a professor emerita of anthropology at the University of South Florida. She is the author of “More Than Black: Afro-Cubans in Tampa” and a newly released book about the Moynihan Report, “Blaming the Poor.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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