50th anniversary of the War on Poverty

Posted January 8th, 2014 by
Category: History, Living consequences Tags: , , , ,

Lyndon Johnson delivers his State of the Union, January 8, 1964Today is the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty.

On January 8, 1964, Lyndon Johnson, in his State of the Union address to Congress, dramatically announced:

This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.

On this occasion, I think it is worth remembering that Johnson was intimately familiar with poverty, having had what biographer Robert Caro calls a “terrible boyhood” filled with the insecurity and humiliations of poverty: living in a home that could be taken by the bank at any time, and often depending on neighbors to bring dishes of food to eat. This seems to have filled Johnson with a passion to fight poverty, which he began planning with his advisers within hours of the assassination of President Kennedy.1

Perhaps because of his familiarity with poverty, Johnson did not attribute poverty to failures on the part of the poor:

The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.

This analysis does not speak directly to the issue of race. But we should pause to remember that one legacy of slavery and racial discrimination was, and remains, a disproportionate lack of access to education, training, medical care and housing, and to decent communities with sound infrastructure and opportunities.

Johnson was not unaware of the disproportionate burdens often faced by non-white Americans, in particular, in seeking to rise above poverty. And he understood the importance of including policies aimed explicitly at issues of race in the war on poverty:

Let me make one principle of this administration abundantly clear: All of these increased opportunities–in employment, in education, in housing, and in every field–must be open to Americans of every color.

As far as the writ of Federal law will run, we must abolish not some, but all racial discrimination. For this is not merely an economic issue, or a social, political, or international issue. It is a moral issue.

All members of the public should have equal access to facilities open to the public. All members of the public should be equally eligible for Federal benefits that are financed by the public. All members of the public should have an equal chance to vote for public officials and to send their children to good public schools and to contribute their talents to the public good.

While Johnson’s call for equal access to public facilities, and equal access to government benefits, may seem (mostly) outdated today, these rights were still largely unsecured in 1964 and would become a vital part of the achievements of civil rights era.

Meanwhile, other parts of the president’s vision for racial justice, including voting rights, and equal access to education and employment opportunities, are very much a part of today’s struggle for racial justice. As Johnson noted about the war on poverty in this same speech,

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.

  1. See Robert A. Caro, Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012). []

One Response to “50th anniversary of the War on Poverty”

  1. stella antley Says:

    Thank you James for giving me, us, this vaualble history lesson on Lyndon Johson and his legacy & committment to abolish while addressing the very root causes of abject proverty directed primarily towards this Country’s weakest and poorest, most uneducated most dissenfrished memebers of it’s society.

    There is sage adage which sums it all up… A people, country, society can be judged by how it treats its weakest Members…this Country fails this litmus tests on so m,y levels. I appauld President Johbson for filling the shoes of one of our greatest advocates President Kennedy and keeping his agenda alive while actually being more acquainted with the plight of the Black Man, Woman & Child since Freed from Slavery while President Kennedy grew up with a Silver Spoon and could not imagine the adverse long term affects poverty plays on the heart, mind, body and soul.

    I totally agree with your insightful comment that via Slavery until present day, we are suffering the residuals. Of an unjust America just as we suffered so did the Native Americans still suffer regardless to the token casinos they’ve been given…while we African Americans still wait forr our ancestors promised 40 acres and Mule not to mention our stolen culture and dignity as a humanbeing. I speak with first hand knowledge of these atrocities as I have a Slave, my Great, Great Grandmother holding me as an infant. She lived to be 111 and yet in her time and mine, we are still suffering unjust discrimination and racism along with institutional prejudice.

    I recently received an Apology for Slavery on behalf of the Slave by the Connecticut General Assembly and while I accepted the Apology with quite dignity, I cannot give pennace or accept the long overdue admission that somthing very wrong and inhumane was done to a people owed and treated as chattel, I cannot help but hope they will do more than just saying…we’re sorry for kidnapping, murdering raping and owning us. As the Bible tells us, this Book thet taught us to believe in while they break all of God’s tenets0that words withou deeds are like dust in the wind. We need equality and a redistribution of the wealth out ancestors built for this Country for free…then and only then will we see an end to poverty and the war will continue and we are stiLl the victims. I wish you all a Happy New Year…Live Long and Prosper and Black History Month. Stella Antley

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