The War on Poverty vs. Racism

The key barrier to embracing the War on Poverty and to building public support for a renewed poverty effort is the fact that right from the start Johnson's program has been maligned and stereotyped beyond recognition.

By Imara Jones Jan 08, 2014

Citing the need to replace "despair with opportunity" 50 years ago this week President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty. His effort to roll back severe economic distress, along with a host of other Great Society programs, was the largest push to help Americans on the economic and racial margins since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many of Johnson’s programs were key to creating economic possibility for millions who had never known it, and a whole host of them such as HeadStart, Medicaid, food stamps, and loans for higher education continue to do that. Given the success of the War on Poverty, and with half of all Americans either poor, near poor or at risk of poverty, a vast array of policies to promote economic fairness is needed yet again. But given the image of Johnson’s programs in the public mind, it may be that much harder to achieve them.

The key barrier to embracing the War on Poverty and to building public support for a renewed poverty effort is the fact that right from the start Johnson’s program has been maligned and stereotyped beyond recognition, with race forming a key part of the insult. Given the development of the War on Poverty, that’s no surprise.

Officially enshrined in the Economic Act of 1964, Johnson’s "War on Poverty" was inspired by and based on Bayard Rustin’s Freedom Budget. Rustin put together the Freedom Budget after organizing the 1963 March on Washington. The War on Poverty and the larger Great Society constitute nearly every major economic opportunity, health, education, food security, and housing program in existence today with the exception of Social Security. From the beginning Rustin and Johnson recognized that racial and economic justice go hand-in-hand.

Yet for the past 50 years the ridicule hurled at this essential down payment on economic justice has been incessant and harmful. Johnson’s chief rival for the 1964 presidential race, Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, kicked off the anti-War on Poverty campaign by saying that Johnson’s program was "a gimmick" to "divide Americans" in an election year. It’s carried on since then.

In the 1980s President Ronald Reagan, who’d taken up the conservative mantle of Barry Goldwater, rode to the White House on a promise to reverse the War on Poverty. While at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Reagan often used rhetoric that was racialized to justify his move to curb certain anti-poverty programs and end others. To that end, the 39th president asserted incorrectly that the War on Poverty increased the number of poor, or of "dependency" as he called it, and that it encouraged black women in poverty to have children as teens.

With Reagan’s narrative holding sway, Democratic President Bill Clinton came under pressure in election-year 1996 to "mend not end" Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), commonly known as welfare. The bill he signed effectively cancelled AFDC and welfare as it was known no longer exists.

Fast forward to now and Reagan’s words still animate much of the public opposition to the War on Poverty and to the federal government’s involvement in reducing inequality. House Budget Chair Paul Ryan, the Tea Party favorite and former GOP Vice Presidential nominee, cites the Great Society for creating a "culture of dependency" that’s holding America back. Piling on the recriminations Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, with the highest rated news show on cable, refers to the War on Poverty as "social engineering." 

Given the 50-year assault on the War on Poverty, its no wonder that as a Center for American Progress report lays out twice as many Americans have an unfavorable view of the original War on Poverty than a favorable one.

The problem is that the scornful rhetoric doesn’t match the positive impact that the War on Poverty and the larger Great Society have had on American society. For starters the official poverty rate is 25 percent lower than when the programs started in 1965. But even more important is the number of people it has kept out of poverty.

As Jared Bernstein, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, points out the poverty rate in 2012 would have been twice as high–nearly 30 percent versus the official 15 percent–without Johnson’s programs. Nearly 40 million people were kept out of poverty in that year alone due to the housing, food security, and income support programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit for the poor, that are President’s Johnson’s legacy. By any standard that’s a success.

Moreover, the economic and racial justice programs of President Johnson, as well as affirmative action effort of President Nixon, had a dramatic impact on the economic future for people of color. Between 1960 and 1980, the black middle class more than doubled.

The irony of the War on Poverty attacks is that they place on Johnson’s programs a standard that he never set for himself. In addition to smearing them with the untruth of their ineffectiveness, there’s an assumption that since the poverty rate isn’t zero the move towards economic opportunity was a bust. But upon the introduction of the War on Poverty bill to Congress, Johnson said to then White House Press Secretary Bill Moyers, "It’s not going to solve poverty but it’s a beginning." 

To the extent that Johnson was correct and that his War on Poverty was merely a first step in economic fairness, it was never fully taken. That’s because as Sergeant Shriver, Johnson’s point person in the War on Poverty, told PBS’ "American Experience,""The War Against Poverty was killed by the war in Vietnam–first of all, because of the lack of money."

Given the array of political and funding obstacles it’s faced over the past 50 years, the shock is how well Johnson’s and Rustin’s vision has fared.

Yet a newly invigorated War on Poverty might be required to get our economy back on track. According to a report by The Hamilton Project, half of all Americans are poor or near poor where "one major setback in income could push them into poverty."  Americans are in such personal economic distress that they believe that more than two and half times more people in the country are in poverty than actually are poor. With many in desperate economic circumstances, despite misgivings about the original War on Poverty, seven in 10 Americans support "the president and Congress setting a national goal to cut poverty in the United States in half within 10 years" according to the Center for American Progress.

Later this month President Obama is set to kick off a yearlong effort to focus on income inequality and economic opportunity. But in order for it to move forward, he will have to confront the successful political vandalization of the economically successful War on Poverty.