The War on Poverty: Year 50


Posted by Tucker Nelson on Friday, January 17th, 2014, 11:20 AM PERMALINK


Last week marked the 50th anniversary on President Lyndon B. Johnson’s (LBJ) war on poverty, sparking a public discussion of the efficacy of these efforts. LBJ’s state of the union speech in 1964 outlined the intent of these reforms:

“… and this year's legislative program, are designed to help each and every American citizen fulfill his basic hopes -- his hopes for a fair chance to make good; his hopes for fair play from the law; his hopes for a full-time job on full-time pay; his hopes for a decent home for his family in a decent community; his hopes for a good school for his children with good teachers; and his hopes for security when faced with sickness or unemployment or old age.”

50 years later, has LBJ vision been achieved? Even those who support the “war on poverty” efforts seem conflicted about its success, or lack thereof. Michael Gerson, for example, wrote in his January 10th column in The Washington Post that while “… The federal government has met some human needs on a vast scale; it does not know how to conquer poverty.”

Even with this admission, that the government is unable to conquer poverty, Gerson’s print version of this piece was still titled “Renew the War on Poverty.”

Conflicted much?

 Well no wonder. In 1982, 15 percent of the population was below the poverty line and by 2010 those numbers had not budged at all. Gerson even admits that certain programs are kept around because they are “promising.” He writes that “Some of LBJ’s ideas, such as Head Start, still seem so promising that we keep trying to get them right, even when social science finds modest results.”

In contrast, Economist Robert Samuelson also writing for The Washington Post notes that “the largest ‘means-tested’ programs (eligibility set by low income) increased from $55 billion in 1972 to $588 billion in 2012.” The budgets for these services have increased 10-fold in 40 years, even with only “modest results.” Those modest results explained by Gerson are noted by Samuelson, who writes that “Although Head Start produces some gains for 3- and 4-year-olds, improvements dissipate quickly; one study found most disappeared by third grade”

That raises another series of questions. What do these results mean? What does it mean to be poor? What would victory look like? We all know what poverty is, but everyone defines it in a different way.  Richard Thaler, Behavioral Economist at Yale, has a take on poverty in America:

“They’re poor because they don’t have enough money. But why is that they don’t have enough money? So do they lack education, do they lack will power, do they lack resources. I mean, it does sound like a dumb question, or course we know what poverty is, but actually we don’t. And it’s going to vary. So somebody on the south side of Chicago being poor may be very different than a peasant in some African village” 

Just like LBJ was unable to define what a victory in Vietnam would look like, scholars are unable to know what a victory on this “war” would look like. Robert Samuelson references a study done by Bruce Meyers and James Sullivan of the University of Chicago: “Among the official poor, half have computers, 43 percent have central air conditioning and 36 percent have dishwashers.” This vague definition of “poor” paints not only a conflicting picture of what that word means in America, but makes people questions the reform set in place 50 years ago. 

Barbara Ehrenreich author of the book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America recently wrote in an article in The Atlantic commenting on LBJ’s war on poverty, she states that “...... there was never enough money for the fight against poverty, and Johnson found himself increasingly distracted by another and deadlier war—the one in Vietnam.”

America turned against the war in Vietnam when they became convinced, rightly or wrongly, that it was unwinnable. Maybe LBJ’s solutions were not the best way to fix poverty in America. We have spent $588 billion dollars in 2012 but have higher unemployment than we did when Johnson launched his war, and the same percentage of people still living in poverty as we did thirty years ago.

The question is: When will Americans turn against Johnson’s other war?

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