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The legacy of the War on Poverty, 50 years later

By Michael B. Katz

On 8 January 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the federal government’s War on Poverty during his State of the Union address. Seven months later, Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act. Time has not been kind to its reputation. Its alleged failures have been used over and over again to support both skepticism of government’s ability to ameliorate social problems and a rightward moving social politics that have buried the possibility of a major, head-on confrontation with poverty. With 50 years’ hindsight, however, it’s clear that the War on Poverty’s legacy is in fact far more positive than critics recognize.

President Lyndon B. Johnson gives the State of the Union Address. Image courtesy of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library.

As a program, the War on Poverty composed but one arm of a multi-pronged assault on economic hardship and its consequences: President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”. It continued even through the early years of the administration of President Nixon and drew its last gasp during the Carter Administration. These presidents’ programs, together with the War on Poverty, Great Society, and related initiatives, formed a powerful engine pulling the nation toward expanded opportunity, as well as economic and social security.

President Reagan famously quipped that the nation fought a war on poverty and poverty won. This is an overly harsh blanket statement. Through the War on Poverty, the federal government helped millions of Americans find medical care, food, housing, legal aid, early childhood education, and income security at a level unprecedented in America’s past. Poor Americans also helped themselves. The day-to-day War on Poverty took place at the grassroots in the complex interactions between activists on the ground, local officials, and the federal government. Many of the gains wrested with great difficulty remain in place today. The War on Poverty and Great Society did not eradicate poverty in America, but during the years when the programs flourished, poverty dropped to its lowest recorded point in US history. Many poor and minority women and men gained new power over institutions and programs that affected their lives and were set on the road to new careers. In these programs lay the origins of the black middle class and political leadership that expanded in the decades to come.

The poverty war itself focused on efforts to promote opportunity in four areas: juvenile delinquency, civil rights, job training, and education. The most popular, and arguably the most successful, was Operation Head Start, which funded preschool education for poor children. The most controversial aspect of the program was community action — the requirement in Title II of the Economic Opportunity Act that the new community agencies created to receive and administer federal anti-poverty funds be “developed, conducted, and administered with the maximum feasible participation of the residents.” Although the Economic Opportunity Act did not specify legal services as part of the War on Poverty, Office of Economic Opportunity director Sargent Shriver decided to include it. By the end of the 1960s, OEO had allocated over $20 million to 130 legal services projects. In 1974, after a contentious legislative struggle, President Richard Nixon signed into law the legislation creating the Legal Services Corporation.

Neither community action nor the War on Poverty’s new service programs — undercut by the need to fund the Vietnam War — increased the amount of money spent on redistributive social welfare programs. Nonetheless, between the late 1960s and early 1970s, the federal government expanded public social spending on social services, public assistance, public housing, and legal services for the poor. Medicaid and Medicare created a system of national health insurance for welfare recipients and the elderly while the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education act for the first time sent large amounts of federal dollars to public schools that served disadvantaged youth. In 1977, Congress eliminated the charge for food stamps, and President Jimmy Carter signed the bill indexing Social Security to inflation.

The unheralded outcomes of these programs deserve recognition. Medicare and Medicaid expanded the availability of medical care for the elderly and indigent. Poverty among the elderly plummeted while their use of medical care soared: between 1964 and 1973, hospital discharges of the elderly rose by 350%. Poor people began visiting doctors at the same rates as everyone else.

Operation Head Start helped significant numbers of poor children prepare for school; Upward Bound prepared large numbers of adolescents for college; and financial assistance permitted thousands of young people from families with low or modest incomes to take advantage of higher education, while the funds provided by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act channeled unprecedented dollars to local schools, which allowed them to hire staff and develop programs for students from impoverished families.

As Legal Services opened access to litigation by poor people for the first time, lawyers used class action suits to expand the rights of the poor in several key areas: medical aid, landlord-tenant relations, state housing laws, consumer credit, and welfare administration. Community Action, the most controversial part of the War on Poverty, for all its problems, nourished a growing citizen’s movement, reshaped local politics, and launched a new generation of minority leaders, many of them women, into public life.

By no means were these programs perfect. We do need to learn from what went wrong, but, even more, we need to learn from what went right. We need to realize how much worse poverty would be today without the War on Poverty and Great Society, and acknowledge how much the rollback of their achievements and the failure to build on and extend their successes has increased hardship among the most vulnerable. As the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty approaches, it is urgent that we ask how we once again can harness the resources and power of the federal government to reduce the unconscionable amount of poverty in America.

Michael B. Katz is Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History and a Research Associate in the Population Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania. The author of Why Don’t American Cities Burn?, The Price of Citizenship: Redefining the American Welfare State, and In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America, he is a past-president of the History of Education Society and the Urban History Association. The first edition of The Undeserving Poor, recently revised in a second edition, was a semi-finalist for the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and a finalist for the American Sociological Association’s Distinguished Book Award.

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Recent Comments

  1. Paul C. Godfrey

    I read with interest the new version of “The Undeserving Poor.” The book’s thesis is powerful and simple: for the better part of the last four centuries (400 years), the collective view of poverty has been one of a person problem. Poverty has been viewed as the result of personal, family, or community deficiencies; our collective response has been to punish the poor for their weaknesses rather than empower them to build on their strengths.

    I agree wholeheartedly! It’s time for a new view of the problem of poverty.

    The book also outlines that poverty, and its elimination, is a moral- not merely technical- issue. Poverty invites us to think through, and clearly define, the mutual responsibilities and obligations we share toward one another. Again, I agree! Talking of poverty as a technical feature of capitalist economies, or its elimination as reducible to well-targeted public policies allows us to sidestep the core moral issue here: What is the great society really like, and what individual and collective obligations do we have to go beyond our own self interest.

    Where I take issue with the book, and the implications for the ongoing War on Poverty, is the discussion of what type of problem poverty represents. The six types of problems are: a problem of persons, places, resources, political economy, power, or markets. You add a powerful seventh type: pessimism.

    The issue for me is that challenge lies not in choosing which is the true type of poverty, but that poverty comes from each of the seven causes. That is, poverty is not A or B, but A and B. That realization makes the task so much harder for those hoping to truly eliminate it. My experience has been that each of the seven causes, or types, can be seen among any community trapped in poverty.

    Personal decisions and communal cultures do matter, at least for some. For others, the absence of resources precludes forward progress. Still others in the community moved into poverty, or remain there, as a result of the Schumpeterian “gale of creative destruction” that continues to change the face of economic activity. Power and oppression appear in the mix as well, particularly for marginalized groups such as native Americans. Markets, both formal and informal, may provide answers, but the impediments to efficient markets creates downward pressure in a number of communities.

    Finally, pessimism facilitates the setting of limited goals in the War on Poverty and creates an attitude of reluctant philanthropy among too many.

    For a perspective that views poverty as the outcome of multiple causes, and provides some thoughtful solutions, see my recent work More Than Money: the five types of capital that create wealth and eliminate poverty, published by Stanford University Press (2014).

  2. […] today’s rich have received more in the way of inheritances and gifts than the middle class or poor. This relation holds by income class, by wealth class, and by level of educational attainment […]

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