The War on Poverty: Was It Lost?

Cecil Stoughton/LBJ Presidential Library
Lyndon Johnson campaigning in Illinois in 1964, the year he declared ‘war on poverty’

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.
—Lyndon Johnson, State of the Union Address, January 8, 1964

Some years ago, the federal government declared war on poverty, and poverty won.
—Ronald Reagan, State of the Union Address, January 25, 1988

Lyndon Johnson became president in November 1963. In January 1964 he committed the United States to a war on poverty. In August he sought and gained authority to expand the war in Vietnam. Of course, the War on Poverty was only a figure of speech—a political and economic promise, not a war from which young men would return in body bags. Nonetheless, most Americans look back on the two wars as kindred failures. Both have had an exemplary part in the disillusionment with government that has been reshaping American politics since the 1970s. Asked about their impression of the War on Poverty, Americans are now twice as likely to say “unfavorable” as “favorable.” In one poll, given four alternative ways of describing how much the War on Poverty reduced poverty, 20 percent chose “a major difference,” 41 percent chose “a minor difference,” 13 percent chose “no difference,” and 23 percent chose “made things worse.”1

Legacies of the War on Poverty is a set of nine studies, edited by Martha Bailey and Sheldon Danziger, that assess the successes and failures of the diverse strategies that Johnson and his successors adopted to reduce poverty. The chapters are packed with evidence, make judicious judgments, and suggest a higher ratio of success to failure than opinion polls do.

Before discussing specific anti- poverty strategies, however, I must note one major gap in Legacies. The War on Poverty was more than just a bundle of programs; it was Johnson’s bid for a place in history. He announced an “unconditional” commitment to do whatever was necessary to raise the incomes of the poor. He also realized that no one really knew how to eliminate poverty without resorting to politically unacceptable methods, like just sending checks to everyone who was poor. When he said that “no single weapon or strategy will suffice,” he was warning Congress and the country that success would require trial and error. When he added that “we shall not rest until that war is won,” he was promising that even if some of his early initiatives failed he would not cut and run but would instead try something new.

Johnson also knew that he would have to leave the White House before success was achieved, although…

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