The Battle Hymn of the War on Poverty | The Nation


The Battle Hymn of the War on Poverty

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(Courtesy: LBJ Library)

On May 5, 1964, four months after Lyndon Johnson committed America to a “War on Poverty,” Sargent Shriver addressed a meeting of the Advertising Council in Washington, DC. At the time, Shriver was working two jobs: he was head of the Peace Corps and, simultaneously, had been tapped by the new president as a special assistant to run Johnson’s anti-poverty initiative. 

Standing before his audience, Shriver talked of a meeting that he’d had with an unnamed journalist the previous week. The journalist told him, he reported, that “before you can do anything about poverty, you’ll have to fumigate the closet in which Americans keep their ideas about the poor. You’ll have to rid America of all its clichés about the poor, clichés like the one which says that only the lazy and worthless are poor, or that the poor are always with us.” 

The newly appointed special assistant to the president looked at his Advertising Council audience and said, “I think she may be right. Our minds are so cluttered up with myths, slogans and clichés about the poor that it would be a great public service if you would help us clear the air.”

For Shriver, the language in which the problem of poverty and the lives of the poor were framed was of critical importance. At the time, he was campaigning to get Congress to pass the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA), the legislative foundation for Johnson’s War on Poverty. He was also busy creating the Office of Economic Opportunity, which would serve as the political and intellectual nerve center of the multipronged campaign. Working long hours, he and an all-star anti-poverty team—among them John Kenneth Galbraith, Saul Alinsky, future AFL-CIO head Lane Kirkland, Michael Harrington and a slew of others—brainstormed strategies to build up job training programs; involve community groups in local rejuvenation efforts; bring legal services into poor communities; and improve the nation’s decaying infrastructures for physical and mental health, proper nutrition and drug treatment. But they quickly found their ideas butting up against public perceptions. More than four out of five Americans, according to opinion polls, believed the anti-poverty campaign to be unwinnable.

Perceptions, the War on Poverty’s A-team realized, could make or break their effort. If the myths and clichés remained intact, it would be a hard slog to get the EOA passed; but if they were increasingly held up to the light and challenged, Shriver believed, the administration could build irresistible momentum for the bill’s passage.

And so in the early days of the war, Shriver launched an all-out effort to shift Americans’ understanding of poverty and transform the language in which poor people were framed. It was an empathy push on a par with that used by abolitionists, suffragists and civil rights leaders to expand the borders of democracy—a campaign, says cognitive linguist George Lakoff, that was in many ways the mature expression of an empathetic language that had emerged over nearly three centuries of Western political philosophy and embedded itself in American political practices. Says Lakoff, “The American conception of democracy developed over a period of time and is based on empathy. Democracy is based on citizens caring about each other.”

Shriver and his team understood this, and as they worked to prevent existing biases from derailing the War on Poverty, they did so in a way calculated to draw on that long tradition. So when Shriver addressed the ad executives on behalf of his boss’s program, he was asking them to use their skills to do the same: to catalyze a collective empathetic surge.

“It simply isn’t true that the poor enjoy poverty,” Shriver told his audience of opinion manipulators, men and women whose talents he was desperate to enlist in this linguistic battle. “Quite the opposite. They resent it. Wherever local communities have started programs to help the poor help themselves, the response has exceeded all expectations…. It is gibberish to say that families enjoy living in rat-infested slums or that they want only a poor education.”

Perhaps the most telling passage in Shriver’s speech was when he lambasted those who blamed poor people for their own plight. As in the Victorian era, when politicians and Social Darwinists conjured a politics that blamed the “undeserving” poor for their twilight existence, in the 1960s many—including liberals like Daniel Patrick Moynihan—argued that poverty was a consequence of dysfunction. Shriver was having none of it. “Only an ignorant person would maintain that laziness or some other moral defect is the source of poverty,” he asserted. “As if being poor were somehow un-American.”

Shortly afterward, with the administration relentlessly focusing on telling the real-life stories of America’s poor and breaking down the clichés about poverty, Congress passed the EOA. In January 1965, still riding the waves of Johnson’s electoral landslide over Barry Goldwater, the administration unveiled a raft of specific policy initiatives to deal with poverty.

A confident president, uncharacteristically prophetic in tone, told the nation in that year’s State of the Union address: “We worked for two centuries to climb this peak of prosperity, but we’re only at the beginning of the road to the Great Society. Ahead now is a summit, where freedom from the wants of the body can help fulfill the needs of the spirit. We built this nation to serve its people. We want to grow and build and create, but we want progress to be the servant, and not the master, of man. The Great Society asks not how much but how good; not only how to create wealth but how to use it; not only how fast we are going but where we are headed.”

Johnson then pivoted from the meditative to the pragmatic, proposing a startlingly ambitious set of proposals. He called for programs designed to improve education for the poor, create job opportunities for those left out of the march to prosperity, provide hospital care for the elderly and safeguard the civil rights of African-Americans. His goal was nothing less than “to open for all Americans the opportunity that is now enjoyed by most Americans, and to improve the quality of life for all.” It would “require of every American for many generations,” he warned, “both faith in the destination and the fortitude to make the journey.”

For the next decade, under presidents Johnson and Nixon, the government would devote more financial resources to fighting poverty than any previous administrations except, arguably, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s, and more political capital than any administration since. The poverty rate in the United States would, by the mid-1970s, decline to 11 percent. That was still 11 percent higher than Johnson had wanted—his pledge, after all, was to eliminate poverty completely—but it was also roughly half of what it had been during the Eisenhower presidency. For a brief moment, the affluent society was being judged by its most powerful denizens according to how it treated its most vulnerable and most invisible.

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