When LBJ walked to the dais to give his first State of the Union address, on January 8, 1964, just a month and a half after President Kennedy had been assassinated, he looked more like a school teacher—a job he’d held, decades earlier, in an impoverished rural community in South Texas—than the most powerful man on earth. He wore a sedate black suit, white shirt and narrow black tie; his receding hair was cut short and brushed back. There was no bombast, no theatrics. He didn’t begin his speech with an over-the-top eulogy to the recently assassinated John Kennedy; nor did he slash his hands in the air and, as a first step to healing the distraught nation, noisily promise to rain down vengeance on America’s enemies, be they domestic or foreign.
Instead, the new president slowly put on his black-framed reading glasses, looked around at the assembled dignitaries and immediately issued a call to action: quietly, but with extraordinary force, he urged Congress to pass a raft of measures on civil rights, on healthcare for the elderly, on transportation, on the building of affordable homes, schools, libraries, hospitals. And in a most somber timbre, he softly asked that the Congress before him become the one known “as the session which declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States.” The investments that Johnson was advocating—in job training, affordable housing, education and so on—would, he averred, “replace [poor Americans’s] despair with opportunity.” It was, furthermore, a moral struggle: “The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”
And thus was born, fifty years ago this week, the War on Poverty. Shortly afterward, Johnson called on Sargent Shriver, then head of the Peace Corps, to run the Office of Economic Opportunity. The OEO became the nerve center from which would emerge the new institutions and programs and ideas that would, collectively, make up a national anti-poverty effort unlike any that had come before or any that would emerge in the half-century following. Out of this office—made up mostly of young idealists who, at first, unsure of the durability of the effort, kept their day jobs and worked on OEO issues long into the night—came the Community Action agencies, Legal Services and a slew of other transformative systems.
The War on Poverty embraced stunningly democratic ideals, seeking to devolve decision-making right down to the community level. It bypassed party machines in big cities such as New York and Chicago, providing funding directly to on-the-ground, grassroots groups. Poor people were given a significant measure of control over their own lives.
From a distance, it has become fashionable to lampoon this war, to denigrate it for creating a “poverty industry” rather than eliminating poverty. Ronald Reagan verbally assaulted “welfare queens” allegedly sucking at a public teat swollen by LBJ’s misbegotten war. These days, GOP Representative Paul Ryan talks of food-stamp recipients rocking on a “hammock” provided them by a bloated anti-poverty infrastructure. Rush Limbaugh routinely caricatures America’s poor as ne’er-do-wells lacking the will to succeed and taught by post-LBJ politicians that all their needs would be taken care of by a nanny state.
In fact, Johnson’s anti-poverty measures—and it should be noted that they also became Richard Nixon’s efforts, less empowering but still remarkably bold—were tremendously successful. In the decade following LBJ’s 1964 State of the Union address, the poverty rate in America was virtually halved. The expansion of food stamps, and of other nutritional programs such as free and reduced school breakfasts and lunches, led to enormous drops in hunger and malnutrition. Medicare—technically not a part of the War on Poverty, but a keystone of the related Great Society programs—was particularly effective in providing financial security to elderly Americans. And with institutions such as Legal Services, an extraordinary network of legal resources was established for low-income Americans, resulting in a number of critically important Supreme Court rulings.