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The War on Poverty

Arzi Rachman, Intern

Michael L. Gillette is the current executive director of Humanities Texas, the state humanities council. Before serving as the executive director, he directed the LBJ Library’s Oral History Program from 1976 to 1991, and then became the director of the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives for twelve years after. His new book, Launching the War on Poverty: An Oral History, pieces together oral history interviews with former president Lyndon B. Johnson and his team of advisers as they undertook the Great Society’s greatest challenge.

This excerpt is taken from an interview with Robert J. Lampman, a staff member of the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) from 1962 to 1963 who worked in the Kennedy Administration along with Walter Heller, chairman of the CEA. The Saturday Group, called so because of their Saturday “brown bag” lunches, would meet informally (at first) to discuss how they could approach the problem of poverty and solutions that could be brought about with assistance from the government. Their luncheons were the beginnings of a social movement that would become pivotal in giving assistance where it was needed. Their work is still seen today, in the forms of public assistance that we once never had an option of choosing when survival was the only thing that was of importance.

LAMPMAN: In that period, May to June [1963], somewhere along in there, Heller asked me to take part in writing up the possible meaning of an attack on poverty- lots of different phrases were used-and to meet with a group of people around Washington at the assistant secretary level and pick brains and get suggestions and criticisms of the idea. We dealt with people from the Bureau of the Budget; from HEW [Health, Education, and Welfare Department] (Wilbur Cohen was an assistant secretary, as I recall, at the time); from labor (Pat Moynihan [Daniel Patrick Moynihan] was the assistant secretary [of Labor]); from Agriculture; from Department of Justice.

There were just a few meetings, as I recall. We’d meet for an afternoon once every couple of weeks or something like that. It was all very tentative and very low-key, at least to start with. People were just speaking their minds. It was almost an academic sort of seminar. Indeed, it was interesting how many people there were Ph.D.s or were backed up by a scholar who was associated with the work. And we had represented people from different disciplines. There were people like Moynihan, who was a political scientists; and Cohen, who was an old hand in the income maintenance field but who was especially interested in this as an issue. There were statisticians, and then there were lawyers. People had very different approaches to the whole question.

We would get into discussion about the definition of poverty. What kind of a concept and what kind of a numbers frame would you have in mind? Some people would say poverty obviously means lack of money income. That had the great merit of being something we had some numbers on. We could say how many people there were above and below some line and where they were and so on. But other people said that’s really not what poverty means; poverty is more or sometimes even less than money. It’s a spiritual concept; or it’s a participation-in-government concept; or it’s a lack of some kind of self-esteem, sort of a psychological or image problem that people had. Or people would say, well, it really has to do with race; it has to do with sort of a near caste system in the United States. Still others would say it really has to do with lack of opportunity. It has to do with lack of public facilities like schools and so on. That’s what makes people really poor.

So we had pretty long philosophical discussions, at least some of the time. I think that difference in concept was also later on reflected in the kinds of remedies that people would come up with. For example, the political concept of poverty – of this lack of power and so on – clearly got its expression in the community action approach as a remedy. In general, there were the economists against the rest of the disciplines. The economists tended to have a more optimistic view that you could something about it. Sociologists, my impression, generally were very pessimistic about that. These are very deep-rooted social, psychological, attitudinal, value-laden concepts. As people bring their own purposes to the poverty question, you can’t change those very rapidly and so on.

So there was a kind of sociological theory of poverty with its lack of remedies, and the economic theory with easy optimism that you could do something about it all. All you have to do is get money to people somehow, get them a job, get them education, training, something like that. So there was a kind of naïve optimism, maybe; but at least it was strikingly different from some of the other attitudes expressed. That was one of the preoccupations at one or more meetings of this group. But there was, in general, receptiveness to the idea that was coming from Heller, and perhaps via him from the president himself, that this might be a good emphasis for a campaign to reelect.

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