During his State of the Union address on January 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war. Not on Vietnam — although we were already secretly involved, this declaration would not come officially for several more months. The target was poverty, which at this point was sitting at a dismal 19%, or roughly one out of every five people.
Speaking to the nation, he said, “Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support… Very often, a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty but to cure it; and above all, to prevent it.”
Responding to Johnson’s call, Senator Pat McNamara (a Michigan Democrat) introduced the Economic Opportunity Act in March, and after only two days debate it passed the Senate 61-34. Although 51 of the votes were Democratic, surprisingly the other 10 came from Republicans, showing the broad support for such legislation at the time. Perhaps even more surprising, this came in an era when anthropologists like the University of Illinois’ Oscar Lewis were teaching the “culture of poverty” theory that the working class were lazy and lacked ambition, and passed these traits on to their children. Johnson signed the bill into law in August. What did this act do?
In short, it created the Office of Economic Opportunity, which was headed by Sargent Shriver and oversaw such programs as Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Job Corps and Head Start. Shriver at that point was the director of the Peace Corps and a brother-in-law to Robert and the late John F. Kennedy. The OEO went downhill under Republican administrations (at one point being run by a young Donald Rumsfeld) and was finally killed by President Ronald Reagan.
VISTA was probably the greatest initiative, and one that should be expanded rather than forgotten. Those who join it are “drafted” for 365 days, trained, and then assigned to various community projects at a pay scale around 105% of the poverty line. This not only reduces poverty and adds jobs for those who sign up, but communities benefit by receiving aid that would likely cost a great deal more from other sources. Rather than funnel billions into the military overseas where funds are literally “blown up”, why not use the same funds for a cause that benefits everyone?
The widest-reaching program was Job Corps, which trains young people aged 16-24 in technical skills. For America’s youth that is too impoverished to afford school (but still maintain a clean record of drugs and violence), this program serves 60,000 individuals every year. For every dollar invested in the program, two or more dollars are returned to the economy thanks to improved job skills. How often do we think of government as turning a profit?
And Head Start is probably the most well-known, because it has serviced more than 22 million Americans — probably you or someone you know. It also happens to be one of the few programs Reagan expanded rather than cut. Head Start is essentially pre-school to give children a “head start” before entering elementary school. The benefits are at least two-fold. First, the obvious boost in schooling for young Americans, reducing illiteracy and other fundamental education issues. But also, it frees up parents who cannot afford a babysitter or day care, putting more people into the work force.
And although Johnson’s war on poverty had wide support (does anyone actually want poverty?), it was not without its critics from both the left and right.
Libertarian economists such as Milton Friedman recommend that the best way to fight poverty is not through government spending and programs but through economic growth. There may be truth to this, though why must “government spending” and “economic growth” be opposing sides? As mentioned above, certain kinds of spending actually adds to the private money entering the economy. And few would argue that America needs no “safety net” whatsoever…
Another critic was Martin Luther King, Jr, who said in April 1967, “I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.” Further, “it is estimated that we spend $500,000 to kill each enemy soldier, while we spend only fifty-three dollars for each person classified as poor, and much of that fifty-three dollars goes for salaries to people that are not poor.”
This may not be so much a criticism of the programs as to America’s priorities. If King’s numbers are accurate (and I concede I do not know), Vietnam did more to ruin JFK and Johnson’s social programs than anything else.
Not everyone saw the program as a failure. Reflecting on the war three decades later, former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Joseph Califano points out a key area of success and wrote that Johnson “took advantage of the biggest automatic cash machine around: Social Security. He proposed, and Congress enacted, whopping increases in the minimum benefits that lifted some two million Americans 65 and older above the poverty line. In 1996, thanks to those increased minimum benefits, Social Security lifted 12 million senior citizens above the poverty line.” And this is quite true. While Social Security alone may not be enough to live on, it is the buffer that keeps millions of our elderly from ending up dependent on others.
If we judge the war on statistics alone, the numbers could be interpreted in different ways by different people. On one hand, between 1964 and 1973, the poverty rate fell from 19% to 11%, suggesting the programs had some effect. However, the poverty level had already fallen from 22.4% in 1959 to 19% in 1964, which hints that the problem was already decreasing on its own. Yet, the rate has not once risen above 15.2% in the ensuing forty years, even during times of recession… did the programs effectively cap the problem, even if it failed to solve it?
Trying to find a definitive answer is simply not possible. For every person who points to the poverty problem and sees that it has not even come close to ending, there is another person who can point to Nixon and Reagan (or even Clinton) and show where the programs were defunded. Have the programs reduced poverty? Could they have done more with more funds? Even fifty years later, this is a question that will have to remain unsolved.