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Part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society program, the War on Poverty began in 1964 with the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act. The 1960s were a time of economic prosperity, which gave liberals the opportunity to allocate surplus funds to improve society. Johnson described his reason for implementing these programs in the 1964 “Great Society” speech given at the University of Michigan. According to Johnson, the success of the “Great Society” depended on “abundance and liberty for all,” an ideal that “demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time.” Johnson saw
America under the Great Society as “a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents” and “where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness.” The Great Society programs, including the War on Poverty, were idealistic in that Johnson sought to serve “not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.” Despite the Great Society’s liberal emphasis on the role of the federal government, it had much in common with the Progressive ideals of the early twentieth century. There were three areas in particular in which Johnson sought to implement the Great Society: in the cities, in the countryside, and in the classroom.
Johnson was especially focused on the needs of America’s cities, especially impoverished minority areas, where the War on Poverty had the greatest effect. In the 1964 Great Society speech Johnson predicted that “perhaps 50 years from now”—in 2014— “there will be 400 million Americans—four-fifths of them in urban areas.” Consequently, the “urban population will double, city land will double, and we will have to build homes, highways, and facilities . . . in the next 40 years we must rebuild the entire urban United States.” Central to his plan to ensure that America approached these changes in the correct way was Johnson’s plan to eradicate both material and psychological poverty; the War on Poverty was the means for achieving that goal.
In a 1964 speech Johnson outlined his plan, officially declaring “a national war on poverty.” Johnson summed up the impact of poverty on the “millions of Americans—one ifth of our people—who have not shared in the abundance” of 1960s America. In contrast to the prosperity enjoyed by the white middle class, the poor, Johnson explained, struggle daily “to secure the necessities for even a meager existence,” unable to enjoy the “abundance, the comforts, the opportunities they see all around them.” This last statement underlines the primary difference between the New Deal and the Great Society: the poor in the 1960s were more aware of the material goods they were missing, primarily via television, and they expected to take part in consumer society at a much greater level than had the poor in the 1930s. Thus, the poor tended to feel especially marginalized from mainstream society, leading to—according to Johnson—”hopelessness for the young,” as the “young man or woman who grows up without a decent education, in a broken home, in a hostile and squalid environment, in ill health or in the face of racial injustice—that young man or woman is often trapped in a life of poverty,” without the “skills demanded by a complex society,” which leads to “a mounting sense of despair which drains initiative and ambition and energy.”
The War on Poverty was also an ideological battle. To justify the need for his War on Poverty, Johnson stated that “We do this, first of all, because it is right, because it is wise, and because, for the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty.” Johnson portrayed his program as an “investment” in the American people and economic system, stating that “if we can raise the annual earnings of 10 million among the poor by only $1,000 we will have added $14 billion a year to our national output. In addition we can make important reductions in public assistance payments which now cost us $4 billion a year, and in the large costs of fighting crime and delinquency, disease and hunger.” Despite the initial financial commitment, the War on Poverty would lead to increased financial success for all, Johnson argued, as American “history has proved that each time we broaden the base of abundance, giving more people the chance to produce and consume, we create new industry, higher production, increased earnings and better income for all.”
Johnson envisioned the War on Poverty as not “a struggle simply to support people, to make them dependent on the generosity of others,” but as a politically initiated “struggle to give people a chance.” The Johnson administration developed a comprehensive plan to address poverty through economic reform, education, and community building, to “allow [the poor] to develop and use their capacities . . . so that they can share, as others share, in the promise of this nation.” The 1964 Economic Opportunity Act was the first official legislation of the War on Poverty, which gave power to the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). The OEO established many programs—including the Job Corps, Head Start, Neighborhood Youth Corps (NYC), and the Community Action Program (CAP)—to address the different facets of the nation’s poverty. These programs were not very successful. Intended to prepare disadvantaged youth for “the responsibilities of citizenship and to increase the employability of young men and young women aged sixteen through twenty-one by providing them in rural and urban residential centers with education, vocational training, useful work experience, including work directed toward the conservation of natural resources:, and other appropriate activities,” the Job Corps lacked sufficient financial support and failed. The EOA also established work-training and work-study programs to facilitate educational and vocational training among low-income youth, and the Head Start program spearheaded the OEO’s attempt to help low-income children adapt to school and society.
The most infamous aspect of the EOA was the Community Action Program (CAP). Intended to provide “services, assistance, and other activities of sufficient scope and size to give promise of progress toward elimination of poverty or a cause or causes of poverty through developing employment opportunities, improving human performance, motivation, and productivity, or bettering the conditions under which people live, learn, and work,” the CAP directly involved the poor in its administration. This policy of “maximum feasible participation” of the poor angered existing policymakers, hampering the CAP’s ability to influence the passage of significant legislation. Consequently, the CAP intended to give the poor a political voice, but all it accomplished was to lessen support for the War on Poverty, as it emphasized the political, economic, and cultural split between the middle class and the poor. The 1964 Economic Opportunity Act was the backbone of Johnson’s War on Poverty and the Great Society program, so its lack of success placed Johnson’s entire domestic-reform plan in jeopardy; when Richard Nixon became president in 1969 he did not support the renewal of many of Johnson’s liberal programs.
- Economic Opportunity Act (http://www2.volstate.edu/geades/FinalDocs/1960s/ eoa.htm);
- Bremner, Robert H., Gary W. Reichard, and Richard Hopkins, eds., American Choices: Social Dilemma and Public Policy since I960 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1986);
- Iceland, John, Poverty in America, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006);
- Johnson, Lyndon, “The War on Poverty” (1964), Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, Book II (1965) (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1966);
- Johnson, Lyndon, “Great Society Speech” (1964), Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, Book I (1963-64) (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1965);
- Patterson, James T., America’s Struggle Against Poverty in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).
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