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POV: LBJ’s War on Poverty 50 Years Later

Some success, but New Deal way may have been better


The 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty has generated much commentary and controversy. Understandably, most attention has been paid to levels of poverty in the years since his declaration in January 1964 and what may account for how much or how little progress has been made. Yet assessing the degree to which “the war” was won or lost comes down to determining which so-called war we’re talking about and how to measure the results.

Regarding which war, most of today’s retrospectives address the wide range of actions the federal government has taken over the years in the name of addressing poverty; we’ll return to those momentarily. Yet the “war” declared by Johnson centered almost exclusively on one of the Great Society programs, the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA), a widely heralded but modestly funded piece of legislation. It centered on youth training, community action, small business loans, a work experience program for welfare recipients, and addressing family disintegration and child abandonment issues. Community Action Programs (CAP), to the surprise of the program’s designers, morphed from a benign “maximum feasible participation” in local affairs to militancy and confrontation in a number of cities. A modest Job Corps program was later phased out, while the Head Start program, inaugurated with CAP funds, has continued to this day, its effectiveness the subject of competing studies.

In short, the EOA and its offshoots did not represent much of a war. Funding levels were modest at best, ranging from roughly $500 million in the mid-1960s to a high point of roughly $2 billion by 1968; by way of contrast, Social Security expenditures in 1970 were $30 billion (and are some $600 billion today). Moreover, these limited funds were widely scattered across low- and moderate-income constituencies across the country. More problematic, the EOA and most Great Society programs were predicated on a so-called services strategy, in which prevention, rehabilitation, and family-strengthening initiatives were seen as means for, in War on Poverty architect Sargent Shriver’s words, “rehabilitating the dependent poor.” Public welfare amendments enacted in 1962 and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 were also underpinned by the belief that promoting individual opportunity would reduce dependency and allow low-income and public assistance recipients to join the American mainstream. Critically, however, a services strategy was not an incomes strategy. In stark contrast to the New Deal programs of the 1930s, in which benefits most frequently were in the form of cash, the 1960s War on Poverty was centered on strengthening individuals, families, and neighborhoods through various services programs.

By the turn of the decade, the war was largely in disarray, with some programs being terminated, others continuing under separate bureaucratic auspices, and the overall strategy being widely criticized. Critics on the right saw poor people being coddled, and critics on the left saw the strategy as “blaming the victim” for the intolerable living conditions in which the poor found themselves. In an early 1970s policy reversal, President Richard Nixon and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later a Democratic senator from New York, put forth a cash-based Family Assistance Plan, one that failed to become law, but that did see poverty as about income. Subsequent antipoverty and antiwelfare efforts in the mid-1970s and the late 1980s centered on work requirements in exchange for public assistance cash grants. These efforts culminated in the creation of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program in 1996, an initiative that represented a partial reversal of the cash/services balance, with cash grants being limited in favor of funding directly work-related services. During this time period, there was also a shift in issue-framing, as concern with “welfare dependency” slowly trumped the question of poverty. That welfare rolls declined significantly in the wake of TANF’s enactment, while poverty levels did not, highlighted the need to once again separate the two issues.

Contemporary antipoverty efforts are far broader than those of the 1960s and do much to assist low-income workers as well as those relying exclusively on public benefits. The birth and growth of cash or cash-equivalent programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (food stamps), and Section 8 housing vouchers, today totaling some $100 billion, represent a larger and more far-ranging set of initiatives. Much of the debate on their effectiveness centers on measurement issues, with a recent study by Columbia University researchers finding that inclusion of government transfer benefits in the poverty measurement (omitted from the current official calculations) has led to significant poverty reduction. Whereas the official measure sees the poverty level as having been essentially flat since 1967 at about 16 percent, the Columbia researchers found that poverty was much higher than that in the late 1960s, at 26 percent, but has since fallen to roughly where the official measure (calculated differently) finds it today. Thus, the declining rate finds considerable success in public antipoverty efforts, whereas both measures finding more than 40 million people still poor questions the meaning of that success, or at least the level of effort behind it.

Last, there is one remarkable and positive exception to these mixed antipoverty results. Largely due to Social Security, poverty rates among people aged 65 and above have fallen by a factor of four since 1959, from 39 percent to 9 percent. Without question, this represents America’s most successful poverty reduction intervention, and it speaks to both the policy and political accomplishments that can be brought about through targeted universal and non-means-tested programming.

Robert Hudson, a School of Social Work professor of social welfare, can be reached at rhudson@bu.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu.

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