The War on the War on Poverty

Hey, hey, the case for LBJ.

By Clay Risen

Tagged HistoryPoverty

On November 27, 1963, Lyndon Johnson delivered his first address to Congress as president. In one of the greatest speeches of his career, he invoked the legacy of the recently slain John F. Kennedy in calling for a new era of social improvement led by a progressive federal government. Kennedy, he noted, had stood at the same podium only a few years earlier and “told his countrymen that our national work would not be finished ‘in the first thousand days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But,’ he said, ‘let us begin.’ Today in this moment of new resolve, I would say to all my fellow Americans, let us continue.”

And so began the most active period of federal policy-making since
the New Deal. The Great Society, in which hundreds of pieces of
legislation, from the Civil Rights Act to the National Endowment for
the Arts to the National Water Commission, passed from Congress to the
president’s pen in just five years. Much of the best-known legislation,
particularly that which applied to social policy, was grouped under the
umbrella designation of “The War on Poverty,” in which millions went to
education, housing, job training, and health care. Johnson’s intention
was in some ways a conservative one: Like his hero Franklin Roosevelt,
he built his social vision around giving a “hand up,” not a “hand out.”
In a 1964 special address to Congress, he explained that his
anti-poverty efforts would “help [recipients] support their families in
dignity while preparing themselves for new work.” Out of the initial
legislation’s six titles, the vast majority of the funding went to just
two of them, one for job-training and one to establish community action
programs, through which educational, legal, and child-health care
resources would be funneled.

But within five years, the optimism of that era was gone. By the
summer of 1968, Johnson had withdrawn from his reelection campaign, and
Republicans were gleefully attacking liberal activism for the rising
crime rates and urban unrest of the 1960s. In the stagflation-plagued
decade that followed, conservatives blamed the War on Poverty for a
raft of society’s ills–unemployment, crime, drug-dealing–that were
primarily the result of changes in the American economy, Republican
monetary policy, and long-entrenched welfare programs that had nothing
to do with LBJ’s efforts. Nevertheless, “Blame the Great Society”
quickly became a key part of the GOP’s rhetorical arsenal; recall
Ronald Reagan’s famous quip that “the federal government declared war
on poverty, and poverty won.”

In time, this became not just a Republican talking point, but the
conventional wisdom. By 1978, Jimmy Carter was declaring that
“government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy or
reduce inflation or save our cities or cure illiteracy or provide
energy.” Not all liberals believe this today, but it’s a fair bet that
many lean closer to Carter than to LBJ. As columnist E.J. Dionne, Jr.
wrote recently, “Democrats have lost enormous ground by allowing a myth
to take hold that Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society was a failure.”

Nevertheless, received wisdom is not always wisdom itself. In fact,
by many metrics, the Great Society was a ringing success. Environmental
regulations such as the Clean Water Restoration Act caused a steady
decline in pollution levels still going on today. Head Start and other
education programs gave millions of poor children a leg up in school,
while Medicare, Medicaid, and increased Social Security benefits
reduced poverty rates among the elderly from 28 percent in 1965 to 11
percent in 1996.

Looking back from 2007, these all seem like so many debating points.
And yet how we act today–as individuals and as a society–is largely
determined by how we understand the lessons of yesterday. Too many
Americans still shrink at the thought of national health insurance, for
example, because they have been raised to see such efforts as hubristic
retreads of government overreach. But given the challenges America
faces at home and abroad, rarely has the case for concerted, activist
government efforts been stronger. The decay of public infrastructure,
the growing wealth gap, and the collapsing health care system are all
examples of the market’s failure to respond to its own externalities.
If liberal policymakers are to succeed in preparing the country for
these challenges, they must be able to see Johnson’s November 1963
speech not as the onset of a misadventure but as an inspiration.

The first step in unraveling the enigma of the Great Society is to
ask what, precisely, we mean by the term. To many contemporary pundits,
it is a graveyard of unsuccessful antipoverty programs. But, to adapt
the terminology of one of those critics, they are defining the Great
Society down; it was so much more than that. It included the Elementary
and Secondary Education Act (which expanded college loan programs), the
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Medicare, and Medicaid,
as well as moral triumphs like the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights
Act, and the Fair Housing Act. The list of Great Society targets
included product safety, the arts, water pollution, and truth in
packaging, among literally hundreds of others. Few would call these
efforts failures, and yet they are a direct result of Johnson’s
activist vision.

What casual critics of the Great Society really mean to attack is
the War on Poverty. Directed largely through the Office of Economic
Opportunity, the War on Poverty included programs ranging from the
Small Business Loan Program to the College Work Study Program, the Job
Corps, and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). The effort was
hardly perfect: Too much emphasis was placed on job-training and not
enough on job creation. Too many programs were designed without input
from the communities–despite being designed to serve and be used by
communities–and they were ineffective as a result. Critics then and now
like to point out that many grants for community action went to
unproven and impractical projects. But, for all its flaws, the War on
Poverty was hardly a failure. Between 1965 and 1970, the number of poor
Americans fell from 33 million to 25 million (despite the 1969–1970
recession). Incomes for poor African Americans rose dramatically, as
did high-school graduation rates, while infant mortality dropped. After
writing several books examining every aspect of the War on Poverty,
political scientist Sar Levitan, in an article with Robert Taggart,
concluded, “As a result of Great Society civil rights and other
initiatives, blacks made very substantial gains on a number of fronts
during the 1960s.”

In fact, the War on Poverty’s biggest failing was not
overcommitment, but a lack of funds. While many experts at the time
said that a substantive attack on poverty would cost in the range of
$30 billion a year, Congress repeatedly authorized about $2 billion,
with heavy restrictions (in part because of conservative opposition,
but also because of the costs of the Vietnam War). More important,
however, was the fact that many promising programs did not last long
enough to have full effect. Although Richard Nixon at first maintained
and even, in some limited ways, expanded War on Poverty programs during
his first term, he did so largely to peel off moderates in the upcoming
1972 election. After his decisive win that year, he cut viciously.
Predictably, by mid-decade, poverty-rate declines flattened, then

Critics like Charles Murray have used the dramatic rise in poverty
and crime that followed the Great Society as evidence of its
failure–the War on Poverty created, in their eyes, a “culture of
dependency” that prevented the poor from moving up and out of the
ghetto. But they confuse chronology with causation. Great Society
assistance may have led some to avoid looking for work, but then there
weren’t many jobs to be had in the first place, thanks to industrial
flight from urban cores, as well as the entrance of the baby boom into
the work force during the beginning of a lengthy economic downturn. As
Brookings economist Harry Holzer explained in 2005, “The biggest thing
that changed subsequent to 1970 is the labor market … Very simply,
growth slowed down and inequality rose very dramatically.” And Nixon
and Gerald Ford deserve more of the blame than LBJ for that shift–and
subsequent rises in welfare rolls–as their monetary policy accepted
high unemployment in exchange for low inflation. Of course, by then it
was becoming accepted wisdom that the War on Poverty was at fault. As
Levitan warned, again with Taggart, “Prudence would caution against
accepting the claims of policy-makers and economists eager to pass the
buck for their own dismal record.” But thanks in large part to the 27
cumulative years of Republican presidencies, many, perhaps even most,
Americans have done just that.

For too long the grand rhetoric of the Great Society, combined with
conservatives’ successful demonization of the War on Poverty, have
created a reductio ad absurdum view of government for many
Americans: Because the Great Society did not eliminate poverty or
racism, it proves that government activism is always a bad thing. But
had it not reached for such heights, it wouldn’t have achieved what it
did. Johnson’s vision was always an open-ended one; for all his
stirring rhetoric, he stood by Kennedy’s warning that America’s goals
would not be achieved “in the first thousand days, nor in the life of
this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet.”

The Great Society was never about just building big government. It
was about creating a dynamic government. It recognized that progress
meant not just improving lives but improving the way government
responded to people’s needs. As Johnson said in a 1964 speech in Ann
Arbor, Michigan, “The Great Society is not a safe harbor, a resting
place, a final objective, a finished work. It is a challenge constantly
renewed, beckoning us toward a destiny where the meaning of our lives
matches the marvelous products of our labor.” A glint of this spirit
animated the Clinton Administration, before it got bogged down in
scandal and congressional opposition.

Once again, America confronts an array of challenges, from wage
inequality and failing schools to environmental degradation and access
to quality health care: the same ones America faced in the 1960s. The
specifics are different, as is the range of possible solutions, but in
many cases the government stance needs to be the same. When a global
economy can give and take away jobs overnight, when health care costs
are rising and access is shrinking, when the income gap is reaching
near-historic proportions–in short, when market forces come to dominate
more and more of our lives–we need a government that is not afraid to
make big plans to make up for the market’s imperfections. It behooves
liberals to reject the idea, embraced by many in the wake of the Great
Society, that government cannot play a meaningful role in shaping
society. As Johnson said, let us continue.

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Clay Risen is an op-ed staff editor at The New York Times and the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination.

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