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)

It was, in hindsight, a high-water mark. Far from failing, the War on Poverty was a resounding success by many measures. With help from the Great Society program of Medicare, millions of elderly Americans became economically secure. Through programs like Head Start, millions of youngsters were given a fairer beginning. In the South in particular—long home to epidemics of malnourishment—nutritional programs dramatically reduced hunger. 

But the on-the-ground successes weren’t matched by an equivalent long-term shift in attitudes. By the late 1970s, a majority of the electorate was growing impatient with the escalating costs of these programs. And in the decades since, poverty and its accompanying scourges—food insecurity, homelessness, inadequate access to medical care, poor schools—have all made a dramatic comeback. Today, almost all of the benefits of economic growth flow up to the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans—and even within that narrow band, a grossly disproportionate share of the gains go to the tiny sliver of the top 1 percent. The further down the economic ladder one finds oneself, the more one is vulnerable to stunningly destructive financial trends. For the bottom quintile of income earners in particular, real wages have declined massively in the past decades—accelerating trends unleashed in the mid-1970s, just as the efforts of the War on Poverty were drawing down and the “war on crime,” which would ultimately see the United States become the world’s largest incarcerator, was ramping up.

Today, nearly 47 million Americans live below the poverty line. And 22.5 percent of kids, according to Census Bureau data, live in impoverished households. But until the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty focused attention on the issue, the conversation in Washington and in most state capitals hasn’t been about their plight. Rather, at least since the 2010 midterms, it’s been about cutting their access to benefits like food stamps, limiting expenditures on programs like Head Start, and attempting to drug-test applicants for welfare and, in some states, for unemployment benefits. For much of the electorate and a good portion of the country’s political elite, the poor have returned to their old Victorian status as undeserving and morally problematic, their poverty a sign of failure and sloth.

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This is a far cry from the optimism of 1964. In its first phase, the War on Poverty embodied hyper-democratic aspirations, based largely on the concept of “maximum feasible participation” advanced by Shriver and Robert Kennedy. The idea was simple: poverty was a multiheaded monster, and slaying it would require multifaceted responses, among them efforts that did not impose solutions from above but instead deeply involved communities in attempts to reshape their neighborhoods and towns.

In the months following the 1965 State of the Union, a slew of fascinating experiments were set in motion: Legal Services, which gave poor individuals and local organizations access to the courts when dealing with civil issues; Community Action Programs, which directly funded local groups to build up local infrastructure; the Job Corps, to train workers and, in particular, provide jobs to impoverished teenagers; Head Start, to give low-income kids early education opportunities; Community Health Center programs; and so on. In all, some twenty programs were brought into being under the umbrella of the Office of Economic Opportunity. 

“Legal Services,” explains John Bouman, president of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, “was viewed as part of the toolbox to help people escape poverty…making sure that the legal system and public policy system are fair to people in poverty.” It was, says Earl Johnson, the California-based author of the three-volume history of Legal Services, To Establish Justice for All, “an attempt to level the legal playing field, change the legal landscape as much as possible. We asked, or required, most local Legal Services programs to have a dedicated unit of some lawyers that did nothing but appellate litigation, class actions and legal representation.” Legal Services established a national clearinghouse to coordinate these litigation efforts. Grants were given out to the University of Pennsylvania Law School to bring dozens of the nation’s top law students into fellowships, during which they learned about welfare law, consumer law and all the other legal byways of the War on Poverty. “They were like shock troops sent out to local programs,” Johnson explains. “From 1967 to ‘74, Legal Services lawyers argued 110 cases in the US Supreme Court and won 62 percent of the cases.” 

For one relatively brief moment, the state was aggressively funding legal actions that could be used to empower the weak and vulnerable against the state itself, as well as large corporations and all the other institutions that, historically, had stacked the deck against them.

Yet, within two years of its launch, the War on Poverty faced a tremendous backlash, not least from big-city Democratic mayors like Chicago’s Richard Daley, who resented the loss of purse power that their political machines were experiencing as a result of Shriver’s participatory principle. In 1966, Daley persuaded Oregon Representative Edith Green to sponsor a bill to turn fiscal control of the Community Action Programs over to local politicians; it passed, and the chapter of the War on Poverty characterized by “maximum feasible participation” more or less ended. In its place came something less transformative: an anti-poverty strategy that relied more on traditional federal, state and local bureaucracies and, ultimately, an approach to mitigating economic destitution that came to use the language of “handouts” rather than that of “empowerment.”

Ironically, given the political hay that Richard Nixon made lambasting welfare and appealing to the angst of the conservative “silent majority,” handout politics suited the Republican president just fine: Nixon dismantled the Office of Economic Opportunity and had its agencies absorbed into other parts of the traditional welfare-distribution system. But he also made sure that paying attention to poverty remained a central part of his presidential responsibilities. It was Nixon—a man who came of age in the Depression and understood firsthand what hardship looked and felt like—who tentatively embraced Milton Friedman’s call for a basic income guarantee. It was Nixon who expanded anti-hunger programs. And it was Nixon who proposed a pathway to a universal healthcare system similar to the one envisioned in the Affordable Care Act more than a generation later. 

That anti-poverty policy could be formulated in a way that didn’t empower poor people or seed radical politics was, in Nixon’s eyes, all to the good. Shriver, however, bemoaned the shift. In a speech he gave in Estes Park, Colorado, in 1980, the man who had once been dubbed by critics as the “poverty czar” noted that under its original premise, “the poor had to do something, take some action, to participate in the War on Poverty. In the ’70s, they just had to sign up and qualify for handouts.”

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