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It’s Been 50 Years Since LBJ Declared War On Poverty

Here’s an excerpt from LBJ’s SOTU speech on January 8, 1964.

Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope–some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.

This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.

It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it. One thousand dollars invested in salvaging an unemployable youth today can return $40,000 or more in his lifetime.

Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support. But this attack, to be effective, must also be organized at the State and the local level and must be supported and directed by State and local efforts.

For the war against poverty will not be won here in Washington. It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House.

The program I shall propose will emphasize this cooperative approach to help that one-fifth of all American families with incomes too small to even meet their basic needs. [Emphasis added]

What LBJ was saying is that the war on poverty will be ongoing and take an coordinated effort from the entire country. Instead, as Digby points out – after early success – this war was obstructed, or sabotaged, Revisiting the War on Poverty.

Today is the 50th anniversary of that speech and there are a lot of commemorations and discussions about how and why we find ourselves still confronting growing poverty 50 years later. I thought it might be interesting to just briefly discuss why it became so discredited over the years and how the right wing won the argument for so long.

She’s goes on to point out the insidious ways this has been done.

There are many reasons for it, but one major way they did it was to sabotage the programs.  Rick Perlstein explains:

… [O]ne way conservatism has responded in its years in governmental power has been to install its own brand of bright-eyed madmen–bureaucrats who self-consciously understood their job as weakening the bureaucracies under their care. Richard Nixon, reading his 1972 landslide as a mandate for a hard-right turn in policy-making, pioneered this move by appointing conservative movement activist Howard Phillips as his head of the Office of Economic Opportunity, in charge of administering the War on Poverty. The Reagan Administration built up the obscure Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs into what historian Thomas Frank has described as “a mighty fortress dominating the strategic chokepoints of big government,” giving business lobbyists a chance to pass judgment on all new lines of federal regulation. And the Administration of George W. Bush (as Alan Wolfe notes in another essay in this symposium) similarly tapped anti-government administrators to run the government.

Also, I’m sorry to say, this. But then the President made it clear before he ran that he was sympathetic to Reagan and his supporters’ determination to clear out the dead wood of the Great Society.)Of course, the robotic mantra of “pragmatic, private/public, devolution,outsourcing” to fix the intractable problems of poverty and middle class torpor have been the watchwords of both parties for nearly a quarter of a century so there’s no surprise.

They didn’t invent this sort of thing in the 60s, of course. They’ve been playing this way for a very long time, as Perlstein illustrates in the rest of that article, which is well worth looking at, especially if you are of the mistaken impression that the Koch brothers are the first plutocrats in American history to create front groups to sell their aristocratic agenda.

When reading things like this, and thinking about how the wing-nuts and plutocrats have obstructed Obamacare, it’s impossible not to wonder how things would be different if we’d have worked together to combat poverty or improve health care. Instead of working against these goals for ideological reasons.


From this graph we can see that the poverty rated has improved significantly since the war on poverty was declared. But like so much in our country, things has stagnated over the last 40 years. As the CBPP says, War on Poverty: Large Positive Impact, But More Work Remains.


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