The War on Poverty Fifty Years Later

n-LBJ-BIRTHDAY-large570Fifty years today (January 8, 1964), in his first State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson proposed a piece of legislation that came to be known as the “War on Poverty.” This legislation was proposed by the president in response to a national poverty rate that had reached around nineteen percent. The speech led the U.S. Congress to pass the Economic Opportunity Act, which then established the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to administer the local application of federal funds targeted against poverty. As a part of Johnson’s vision of the Great Society the role of government in education and health care became federal policy.

Under President Clinton this “war” ended. Aspects of the Johnson policy still remain; e.g. Head Start, Volunteers in Service to America, Job Corps, etc. Some of these programs have worked better than others. But the major aspects of the original program ended in the 1990s. I would argue that the major reason they came to an end was the factual evidence that followed their initiation in the 1960s showed that these programs did not do what they promised.

Yesterday, I was asked to contribute a 350-word response to the anniversary of “The War on Poverty,” for a national magazine’s website. Here is what I sent for publication today:

The “War on Poverty” was the most ambitious attempt in American history to eradicate poverty through government planning. I believe it was a virtuous plan, driven by idealism and deeply humanitarian concerns. But it was a massive government failure. The problem was that government’s good intentions were put into hugely bureaucratic program with little awareness of the consequences of the moral choices created by the program

Michael Novak rightly says, “There is a right way and a wrong way for government to get involved in humanitarian attempts to better the human condition. One wrong way is for government–especially a distant, impersonal federal government–too easily to become a tyrant, too easily to become inefficient, meddling, bureaucratizing, corrupting, enervating.” FDR recognized this when he warned Congress in 1935, “The lessons of history, confirmed by evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration to the national fiber. To dole out relief . . . is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit” (Michael Novak, cited in Writing from Left to Right, Image: New York, 2013, 155).

It was this “narcotic” that was the real culprit in the “War on Poverty.” LBJ’s program clearly improved the condition of the elderly. It also brought attention to the great needs of many poor African-Americans. But it lost sight of the moral consequences of good intentions gone awry by removing personal responsibility. In the end it eroded the national character of millions of Americans who were subtly taught that it really is more blessed to receive than to give. The fabric of this program, as FDR warned, was flawed. In time it was a coalition of Democrats and Republicans, along with President Clinton, who legislatively addressed the flaw!

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