The Battle Hymn of the War on Poverty

The Battle Hymn of the War on Poverty

How the call to empathy helped mobilize a nation.


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.

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.

* * *

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.”

* * *

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.”

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