The War on Poverty at 50

American Icons, Featured Article, History, Hometown Heroes
on January 7, 2014

President Lyndon Johnson began America’s War on Poverty during his State of the Union address January 8, 1964. Fast forward 50 years, the poverty rate stands at 15 percent. Johnson’s administration started many programs to alleviate the burden on the poor, but future legislative setbacks and persistent logistical problems have stymied the war ever since.

The poverty rate in 1964 was 19 percent and about 34 million people were considered poor, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Seeking to combat this and advance his larger social policy of the Great Society, Johnson launched his “unconditional war on poverty” during his first months in office.

Congress quickly passed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, creating the Office of Economic Opportunity. That office spearheaded efforts like the Job Corps vocational training program and the Head Start early-childhood educational program, both of which are still in existence. The Office of Economic Opportunity was rebranded in 1975 and closed in 1981.

The Social Security Act of 1965 established Medicare and Medicaid to help older Americans with their medical needs. Johnson’s reforms continued, in spirit, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal plans of increasing jobs opportunity, providing education and alleviating the woes of the poor.

The War on Poverty had early successes. The poverty rate dipped to 11.1 percent in 1973. The rate has fluctuated between 11 and 15 percent, with 1983’s 15.2 percent being the highest.

Criticisms plagued the War on Poverty from its inception. Economists like Milton Friedman questioned the efficacy of government intervention into the economy. Martin Luther King Jr., in his 1967 book, “Where Do We Go From Here?: Chaos or Community” equated the War on Poverty with the Vietnam War and blasted Johnson’s unfocused efforts.

As interest in the War on Poverty faded and the 20th century continued, policy changes reduced Johnson’s initial gains. The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act reworked the welfare system. It ended the 1936 Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. The law was intended to lessen the poor’s dependency on the government.

The constant enemy in the War on Poverty is employment, more specifically well-paying steady employment. Many low-wage jobs do not pay enough to support a family of four, much less keep them above the poverty line. Law professor Peter Edelman writes that current welfare aid only amounts to around $6,000 per year, well below the poverty line.

Commentators question whether programs aimed at helping people out of poverty only keep them there, a concern critics have raised since the New Deal.

Currently, 15 percent of the population or 46 million people live in poverty. With ongoing programs such as the Affordable Care Act and the success of Head Start and other educational programs, President Ronald Reagan may have spoken too soon in 1988 when he said, “some years ago, the federal government declared war on poverty, and poverty won.” The War on Poverty continues.

Is the war won or lost? Share your thoughts in the comments below!