HM - Feb. 2015 - C Staysniak

The History File

New Perspectives to the War on Poverty

By Chris Staysniak
Boston College

Even though the end of the 1950s featured a golden age of prosperity for the suburban middle class, some 40 million Americans--almost a quarter of the population--still lived in grinding poverty.[1] In 1962, Michael Harrington wrote about this divide in his best selling book, The Other America. He wrote about the “invisible” poor, their daily and often desperate daily struggle, and forcefully argued that this inequality was “a monstrous example of needless suffering in the most advanced society in the world.”[2] One part academic thesis and one part prophetic witness, Harrington’s popular study was at the crest of a rising tide of national concern over how such crushing poverty could still be the fate of so many Americans.

It was in this historical moment that Lyndon Johnson famously declared in his 1964 state of the union address, “unconditional war on poverty in America.” With the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act later that year, Johnson launched the first of many initiatives that together would be known as the War on Poverty. His ambitious legislative agenda for the Great Society marked the greatest transformation of the relationship between the federal government and its citizenry since FDR’s New Deal. Johnson’s drive for a more just and equitable American society represented a high water mark of a confident postwar American liberalism, “total victory” against the societal constant of poverty.[3]

Looking back at this period, it is easy to revisit this moment with an inclination towards cynicism. Out of the gate Johnson’s programs met fierce resistance from politicians and much of the citizenry alike, and the vision of a Great Society faded. It is not hard to lose sight of it in relation to other great national dramas of the period, such as black freedom struggles, the Vietnam War, college campus protests, and second-wave feminism, to name a few of these revolutionary cultural events. Indeed, fifty years later, the War on Poverty has an impoverished place in popular memory.

But in contrast to this lackluster legacy, in many ways the War on Poverty was a tremendous success that immediately improved the lived experience of millions of Americans. By 1974 the number of Americans living below the poverty line had been halved. Food stamps helped feed those who were hungry, community medical centers brought health care to areas where there had been none, and government-funded preschool gave countless children a critically important space to learn and grow. On a legislative and policy level, the War on Poverty entailed passage of the Food Stamp Act, Voting Rights Act, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as well as creation of Medicare and Medicaid, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation, and Head Start.While the “Reagan revolution” pruned much of this social safety net, most of these constituent pieces of the War on Poverty continue to exist today, and Americans from all parts of the political spectrum could not imagine life without them.

Even from its inception the War on Poverty was a politically polarizing and contentious enterprise that suffered criticisms from all sides. For many on the political left, the War on Poverty did not go far enough in addressing and transforming the structural causes of poverty. It was starved by the demands of Vietnam, and sentenced to a slow demise by a lack of political will. On the right, it was a bugaboo of big government, an enabler of “welfare queens” that was destined to collapse under its own socialistic weight. When remembered at all, the War on Poverty is often thought of through the lens of this stark political narrative.

Histories of the War on Poverty have often followed this top-down approach that focused on national-level debates and federal politics. Presidential imagery conveniently provided neat chronological bookends. In the beginning Lyndon Johnson stood on the front porch of Tom Fletcher’s cabin in Inez, Kentucky, and declared war on poverty. At the end Reagan passingly laid the struggle to rest with his reductive but enduring quip that “We fought the war on poverty, and poverty won.”

The legacy of the War on Poverty has been overly simplified and obfuscated by these politicized narratives. It was so much more complex than partisan-inflected verdicts of “success” or “failure” allowed room for. Thankfully, a recent resurgence in scholarship has brought more nuanced and even-handed analysis, freeing it from the top-down political discourse that has hamstrung its memory. This revolution in the historiography has been led by Dartmouth historian Annelise Orleck, with her own books Storming Caesar's Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty and edited volume The War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History, 1964-1980. This work has spurred scholarship away from the Beltway towards a new and needed grassroots emphasis.

Instead of debates over the War on Poverty’s efficacy, the new War on Poverty history, and its bottoms-up focus has rightfully demonstrated that it was not just a political venture, but rather a multifaceted movement shaped by the interplay, if not struggle, between federal policy makers, grassroots activists, community organizers, the Civil Rights movement, state and city officials, and public intellectuals. Beyond poverty indicators and political bluster, the War on Poverty cannot be fully understood without understanding what it looked like on the ground, and realizing that it was a mosaic of local struggles, failures, and successes.

If older narratives of the War on Poverty are best encapsulated by presidential moments, newer scholarship should be thought of as a scrapbook, a series of snapshots of unique localized efforts that together tell a greater story. This new history includes Tejano migrant workers struggling for labor rights in Milwaukee, black mothers marching to shut down Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas in a bid for fairer wages, and Bronx families agitating for more control over their children’s public schooling. The new scholarship has convincingly shown that the War on Poverty cannot be understood through policy “generals” alone. It was “fought” on the ground by marginalized communities. The struggle against structural injustice was carried on by those that responded to the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964’s democratizing call for “maximum feasible participation” of the poor. Across the country, communities took advantage of the new programs and resources available to them to try to improve their communities. As Orleck wrote in The War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History, this Federal empowerment “galvanized poor people across the United States. It bubbled up from community meetings in coal-mining hollows and among councils of elders on Indian reservations. It animated late-night fireside discussions in the camps where Mexican migrant workers lived.”[4] A more complete understanding of the War on Poverty and its successes, its failures, its limitations, and its legacies, must consider this grassroots angle to get a real sense of its complexity and reach. These localized case studies of rural families, inner-city single mothers, Native Americans on impoverished reservations, and other marginalized groups, aided by Federal resources and allies like twenty-something VISTA volunteers, represent a tremendous step in the right direction.

Beyond the need for understanding the past in all its “gray” and complexity, the War on Poverty demands proper understanding because it represented a rare moment in history when a large swath of the nation--from the hollows of Kentucky to the slums of Las Vegas to the halls of the White House--found enduring poverty to be an unacceptable affront to their vision of America. Amid today’s national debates over inequality and class stagnation, we should proudly draw on this chapter in American for inspiration. As the late historian of American welfare and poverty Michael Katz wrote, “One goal of studying the past is not to be trapped by history but to transcend it.” If we take his assertion seriously, there are few better places to begin than in exploring and unpacking the War on Poverty in all its failures, successes, and hopes for a better future.
Further reading:
Harrington, Michael. The Other America: Poverty in the United States. New York: Touchstone, 1997 (reprint).
Orleck, Annelise and Lysa Gayle Hazirjian, eds. The War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History, 1964-1980. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011.
Orleck, Annelise. Storming Caesar’s Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.

[1]Orleck, Annelise and Lysa Gayle Hazirjian, eds., The War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History, 1964-1980 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011), 5.
[2] Harrington, Michael, The Other America: Poverty in the United States (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 191 (reprint).
[3]“Special Message to the Congress Proposing a Nationwide War on the Sources of Poverty, March 16, 1964,” Lyndon B. Johnson, accessed January 30, 2015.,
[4] Orleck, The War on Poverty, 2.