The War on Poverty and Its Relevance Today

John Midgley

In 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared "unconditional war on poverty" in his first State of the Union address. Congress soon after enacted the Economic Opportunity Act, which included the Community Action Program and the Job Corps, and this war with strong humane aspirations established other popular programs still in existence, such as Head Start. Sargent Shriver, first head of the Peace Corps, was put in charge of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). Among many other programs, OEO started the modern legal services movement.  OEO required its lawyers to serve not just individuals but also communities of people of low income and to try to reform and change laws and practices that harmed those communities, values CLS still holds today.  

It seems almost another country in which a President made such a bold move to create success for those in poverty. Sadly, the overt war and some of its programs were dismantled for political reasons, especially starting in the late 1970’s and the attacks continue today. Politicians now don’t talk like LBJ and the federal government is committed to managing poverty, not ending it. But there is much to learn from the great effort of the 1960’s that we can apply in the 21st Century.

First and foremost, while poverty was not eliminated, it is not true (as some say) that the War on Poverty failed. It was a qualified success as benefit programs started then have kept many people from falling into official poverty measured by income. The “failure” scenarios also don’t consider that the War on Poverty eliminated many of the worst conditions that have not returned: before this effort, there was widespread malnutrition, a lack of basic services in some rural areas, infant mortality was higher than it is now, fewer people were provided with a college education, etc. It wasn’t perfect, and many challenges remain, but the War on Poverty has done a lot.

We need a revived war on the scourge of poverty, and we can learn from two parts of the first forays in order to spark that revival.

First, values and words matter. Sargent Shriver discovered that he had to demonstrate that people of low income were not the lazy folk of myth, but hardworking people who just needed a chance. But the myths, in strongly racially tinged form, have made a big comeback over the last 30 years. We need to rededicate ourselves to showing our fellow citizens the true situation and struggles of those in poverty to help ignite a new era of compassion and a hand up for our neighbors in need.

Second, though, working on the values level is not enough. We also have to rededicate ourselves to another of the core values of the War on Poverty: That people of low income must have a say in their own fate. The Community Action Program as originally conceived was an unabashed empowerment program that stipulated "maximum feasible participation" by communities impacted by poverty. In short, the federal government was involved in organizing the poor so they could put their issues on the agenda and make their lives better. The government won’t be doing that again soon—this part of the CAP program was one of the first casualties of the War on Poverty—but the principles of empowerment and maximum feasible participation should still guide us because they are important principles of true democracy.

It’s about values but it’s also about power as we think about how to fight on in the War on Poverty in our current work.  

There are many articles that have come out recently on the War on Poverty, as 2014 is the 50th anniversary of the declaration of this war. Here are three that helped with my thoughts above:

“50 Years Later, War On Poverty is a Mixed Bag,” New York Times

“Hidden History: The War on Poverty at 50”

“Why We Need a New War on Poverty”