By Michael L. Gillette
Fifty years ago on the eighth of January, President Lyndon Johnson declared unconditional war on poverty. In his first State of the Union Address, LBJ outlined his offensive, a sweeping domestic agenda that would become known as the Great Society: Medicare, federal aid to education, an expanded food stamp program, extended minimum wage coverage, urban renewal, mass transit, youth employment and job training initiatives, construction of libraries, hospitals, nursing homes, and low-income housing, immigration reform, the abolition of racial discrimination, and even a tax cut.
Within a month, Johnson prevailed on Sargent Shriver, President Kennedy’s brother-in-law, to lead his offensive by developing and implementing innovative anti-poverty programs under a new executive agency, the Office of Economic Opportunity. From Shriver’s brainstorming and LBJ’s masterful legislative skill came an array of enduring initiatives, including the Job Corps, VISTA, the Community Action Program, Work-Study, Adult Basic Education, Community Health Centers, Upward Bound, Foster Grandparents, Legal Services, and Head Start.
Oversold and underfunded, LBJ’s War on Poverty fell short of achieving its lofty goal of eradicating poverty in America. While the program transformed countless lives, it could not prevent the inevitable misfortunes that would impoverish others. But the poverty rate declined from 22% to 13% during the 1960s. Moreover, LBJ’s offensive focused the attention of all levels of government on the poor, while creating a public consciousness of the problem. Instilling awareness was, in fact, one of Johnson’s objectives. As he told a reporter in 1964, “I don’t know if I’ll pass a single law or get a single dollar appropriated, but before I’m through, no community in America will be able to ignore the poverty in its midst.”
Michael L. Gillette directed the LBJ Presidential Library’s Oral History Program for sixteen years. He is the author of Launching the War on Poverty: An Oral History and Lady Bird Johnson: An Oral History.