National Consumers League

50 years after LBJ declared a War on Poverty: Progress but more work to do

In his 1964 State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty. Today, Martin Luther King Day – a day to celebrate equality, justice, and progress – we reflect on the status of struggling families. While there is still much work to do to ensure every American worker has enough money in her pocket to pay the bills, provide for for her family, and guarantee a stable household, we have made great leaps in the last 50 years. 

Johnson put in place a series of anti-poverty programs – VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), Job Corps, Head Start, Legal Services, and the Community Action Program the likes of which we’ve never seen again. These programs significantly tempered the impact of poverty for millions of Americans. Indeed, in the decade following the 1964 introduction of the war on poverty programs, poverty rates in the U.S. dropped to their lowest level since comprehensive records began in 1958: from 17.3 percent in the year the Economic Opportunity Act was implemented to 11.1 percent in 1973. They have remained between 11 and 15.2 percent ever since.

We can be proud that the legacy of Frances Perkins and the New Deal programs of FDR’s administration – Social Security and Medicare and more recently Medicare Part D which covers the cost of medications – have vastly improved the lives of elderly Americans: the most dramatic decrease in poverty is among Americans over 65, which fell from 28.5 percent in 1966 to 10.1 percent today.

Hubert Humphrey, a Minnesota Senator and the man who served as Vice President to LBJ, talks in his spellbinding book “A Public Man” about making a real dent in poverty with these programs. Sadly, the Nixon administration that came into power after LBJ’s reign dismantled many of them. There was a tide that swept over America that offered a few egregious examples that these programs made people “too dependent on government” and unwilling to work.  Yes, there are some lazy people looking for a handout; but there are far more who use these safety net programs to feed their families and get back on their feet so they can work and be productive members of society.

Today the biggest drag on the economy and the notion that “a rising tide lifts all boats” is that the gains in GDP have landed disproportionately in the wallets of the top 1 or 2 percent whereas in the 60s and 70s these gains were shared far more broadly. The number of union jobs that offer good wages and benefits has fallen dramatically. Unionization of the workforce today is at its lowest level since 1916, when it was 11.2 percent. Sadly, our labor laws do not favor union organizing and there’s been a steady drumbeat by the business community, including the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, against ceding any power to unions to organize and negotiate on behalf of workers.

So, the War on Poverty, though successful in offering relief programs to the poor, has been undermined by the lack of decent jobs and poor educational opportunities. There’s a little light at the end of the tunnel, however. I’m personally thrilled and delighted to see the wave of state laws increasing minimum wage and the bipartisan support from red and blue states alike in favoring these increases. More than 70 percent of voters in March of this year told Gallup pollsters they would like to see the minimum wage increase. By November that percentage had risen to 76 percent including 58 percent of Republicans supporting an increase.

If the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013 is passed into law, 30 million Americans will see an increase in their paycheck. Providing an increased minimum wage may not be a panacea for these struggling Americans, but it will go a long way toward lifting families out of poverty.  It’s good for kids too, because they suffer the most when there’s not enough food in the cupboard. President Johnson had it right – we have to treat the problem of poverty in America like a war –and many strategies need to be deployed to combat the problem. With the recent gains in minimum wage in states around the country and momentum building, we may indeed be opening the next chapter in President Johnson’s War on Poverty.