On January 8, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty. And now because it’s been fifty years, the sages and pundits are assessing how it went.
The usual suspects — the GOP and conservatives such as Rand Paul and Marco Rubio who think the way to end poverty is pray harder and be born white and able-bodied — are claiming the war was lost and that we should never have fought it in the first place. Facts prove otherwise; and while it hasn’t been the dream envisioned by LBJ and the people who truly wanted to end poverty, it’s certainly better than the alternative. From Michael Tomasky at the Daily Beast:
You may have seen the big Times piece Sunday that looked back over the half-century war on poverty, kicked off by Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 State of the Union address. The article noted that in terms of health and nutrition and numerous other factors, the poor in the United States are immeasurably less immiserated today than they were then. But it did lead by saying the overall poverty rate in all that time has dropped only from 19 to 15 percent, suggesting to the casual reader that all these billions for five decades haven’t accomplished much.
What’s wrong with thinking is that we have not, of course, been fighting any kind of serious war on poverty for five decades. We fought it with truly adequate funding for about one decade. Less, even. Then the backlash started, and by 1981, Ronald Reagan’s government was fighting a war on the war on poverty. The fate of many anti-poverty programs has ebbed and flowed ever since.
But at the beginning, in the ’60s, those programs were fully funded, or close. And what happened? According to Joseph Califano, who worked in the Johnson White House, “the portion of Americans living below the poverty line dropped from 22.2 percent to 12.6 percent, the most dramatic decline over such a brief period in this century.” That’s a staggering 43 percent reduction. In six years.
The war on poverty then lost steam in the 1970s. Some of that was Johnson’s fault—money that might have been spent fighting poverty was diverted to bombing and shooting the Vietnamese. Some of it was the fault of liberal rhetoric. Johnson and others would speak of eradicating poverty, and of course eradicating poverty is impossible, and when it didn’t happen, conservatives were able to say, “See?” (Democrats ought to have learned their lesson along these lines; Barack Obama made a similar mistake in 2009, vowing that the stimulus would keep the jobless rate under 8.5 percent.) And so the public started electing politicians who told them poverty couldn’t be cured by government but only by pulling up one’s bootstraps and friending Jesus more aggressively.
Despite the best efforts of the Republicans, the Great Society programs have chalked up major successes. Schools have improved immensely for all children, including those with disabilities, and programs such as Medicare and Medicaid have saved thousands of lives. (And they work. Just try taking Medicare away from the most ardent Tea Partier and see what happens.)
The political problem is that Americans don’t know about or focus on these successes. They just know that we tried, and poverty still exists. Thus has the “war” frame ended up being extremely handy for conservatives, who will always be able to point to the existence of poor people and therefore to make the claim that the whole thing has been a failure. That is why Rubio can say what he says in his new video and have people who don’t know any better nodding their heads in agreement. And it’s why Ryan can prattle on as he does about government and dependency. I can assure you that when both unveil their specific policy platforms later this year, they’ll consist of a mix of things that a) already exist in some form; b) have been tried and proved tricky to implement; c) sound good in theory but will be woefully underfunded; or d) have been studied to death, with findings suggesting their impact will be minimal.
One problem with the War on Poverty was branding. Calling it a “war” made it binary: wars are either won or lost, and putting the effort to relieve the situation in those terms made it simplistic… and easy for detractors to attack when there were the inevitable failures or shortfalls. At the time, though, labeling it as a war was good P.R.; the United States was less than 20 years from the victory over the Axis in World War II and we were eight months away from the Gulf of Tonkin resolution that would drag us into the first war we would lose. So calling it the War on Poverty sounded good, and if they had had such things as focus groups back then, they would have found that declaring a war on something sounded like a good thing. (Of course, so did “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.”)
If we are to raise people out of poverty and hopelessness, it should be done not as a war but as an effort by all of us to overcome inequality on all levels, be they economic or social barriers. It should be part of our goal as the Constitution states: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Ending poverty goes a long way to accomplish all of those, and fifty years later, we are that posterity.