The Who2 Blog

LBJ’s War on Poverty: It Worked!

LBU signs the Poverty Bill in May of 1964 as members of Congress look on. Photo by Cecil Stoughton, courtesy of the LBJ Library.

President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in his State of the Union address 50 years ago this week. Prof. Michael Katz pushes back on the modern blather that the project failed:

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. 

Amen. Enough with the claims that the government can’t do anything to help people get a leg up in their lives! Those braying blowhards who say can’t really mean shouldn’t, which is a much different thing.

The LBJ Library has a nice feature on the War on Poverty, including this old-timey video presentation from 1964:

Skip ahead to the 7:00 mark for footage of LBJ pressing the flesh in old Kentucky, where “a third of the county is faced with chronic unemployment.” The president put it this way:

“For the first time in our history, an America without hunger is a practical prospect. And it must, it just simply must become the urgent business of all men and women of every race and every religion and every region.”

LBJ shakes hands with a citizen in Appalachia, 1964. Photo by Cecil Stoughton, from the LBJ Library

You don’t have to look at too many photos from Appalachia in the 1960s to see just how bare the living could be in those days. The government helped change it:

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.

Were there mistakes and missteps and abuses? Sure. Those huge city housing complexes didn’t work out too well. Yes, people found ways to game the system and get their hands on money they didn’t deserve. The same is true of the Defense Department and its game-playing contractors and occasional boondoggle fighter jets, and yet nobody ever suggests that the governent can or should get out of the business of the public defense.
A lot of people are a lot better off 50 years ago because LBJ and Congress worked hard to make things better for all citizens. Good for them, and good for us, for trying everything we could to help Americans make a better life — and shame on us if we listen to the naysayers and give up now.
(And one more thing: anti-smoking measures, spurred by the 1964 report of U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry, have now saved an incredible 8 million American lives. Thanks, federal government!)

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