The Battle Hymn of the War on Poverty
There is a powerful irony in this inversion that is a mark of Nixon’s success and a measure of the ground lost. Indeed, when Ronald Reagan lambasted “welfare queens” in 1976 and went on to win the 1980 presidential election in part by marshaling opposition to the welfare state; when Republicans today bemoan the handouts mentality; when Rush Limbaugh attacks hungry kids on summer feeding programs as “wanton little waifs and serfs”; and when Paul Ryan accuses food stamp recipients of, in effect, lounging around on hammocks, they were and are attacking Nixon’s vision of anti-poverty programs as social pacification tools far more than the original vision of the War on Poverty.
At the same time, in relentlessly attacking anti-poverty programs and the Nixonian handout strategy—as well as the very assumption that the modern state has an obligation to intervene systemically against poverty—conservatives have created a powerful shift in public attitudes on poverty and poor people. We have witnessed a great unraveling of large parts of the social safety net and an extraordinary willingness to believe the worst about the poor and to fund an incarceration safety net—made up of a vast web of prisons and jails—to deal with the consequences of poverty. Linguistically, from 1964 to today, the dominant discourse has shifted from seeing poverty as the problem to framing poor people and their perceived dysfunctions as the primary challenge. It makes it far harder today to push for the kind of big-picture anti-poverty strategy that was born in 1964.
When President Obama defends the Affordable Care Act, or when he acknowledges that escalating poverty and inequality are the great domestic challenges of the moment, he marshals some of the same rhetorical devices used to sell the War on Poverty. In those instances, one can glimpse once more America’s empathetic ideals struggling for air. But Obama’s efforts to bring poverty to the fore of Americans’ consciousness have been halfhearted. He hasn’t yet sought to re-create a national call to empathy akin to the beginning of Johnson’s War on Poverty.
At the same time, when opponents bash the Affordable Care Act, oppose increases to the minimum wage or insist on curtailing extended unemployment benefits, they reach deep into that grab bag of myths and clichés about poverty that Sargent Shriver was so critical of a half-century ago—a linguistic world of unempathetic language about the lives of America’s modern-day poor.
“In a world where you don’t encounter strangers who are different from you, the chances of you caring about strangers is very, very low—because you don’t understand their suffering,” says Roman Krznaric, author of the upcoming Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution. There is, he adds, a need “to change the mentality of a generation. You’re only going to energize a new War on Poverty through new conversations and new experiences. Empathy has to become a habit.”
For legal scholar Peter Edelman, however—a man who cut his teeth in the early phase of the War on Poverty—empathy alone won’t banish poverty from this wealthy land. “It’s about power,” Edelman says. “About organizing. About people being involved in politics and doing something to make their lives better.” And, by extension, it’s about a language of politics that explains how power is distributed and how it is used.
That the War on Poverty has been so tarnished in the public imagination, Edelman says, is in large part because conservatives have been allowed to dictate the terms in which it is discussed, replacing an epoch of empowerment politics with the idea that 1960s radical social policies were all about breeding dependency and sloth. But, he adds, it wasn’t a failure at all.
According to Jamie Price, executive director of the Sargent Shriver Peace Institute, in the 1960s Shriver believed that “the arc of history moves toward justice.” And, in many ways, the Office of Economic Opportunity that he presided over allowed America’s better angels to travel just that arc. In the end, the War on Poverty’s language about power dynamics and its empathetic underpinnings proved remarkably effective: “Poverty was cut in half from 1959 to 1973,” Edelman notes. “That’s a big deal. And black poverty went from 55 percent to 31 percent. Anti-poverty efforts in the ’60s were quite successful. And the War on Poverty is part of that.”
Read Next: Greg Kaufmann on “How to Build An Anti-Poverty Movement.”