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War On Poverty.locked

War On Poverty.locked

  • Julian C. Madison

A version of this article originally appeared in The Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present.

A New Deal Democrat, Lyndon Baines Johnson was committed to helping the poor long before he became president of the United States in 1963. In an effort to make the country a better place for all, to create a “Great Society,” Johnson felt that the government must attack not just poverty but poverty's causes as well. Johnson's ideas for building the Great Society encompassed civil rights legislation, Medicare, the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities, immigration reform, preservation of the environment, and beautification of the nation's highways and cities. Although civil rights was the centerpiece of the Great Society program, the War on Poverty was just as important. Johnson believed that the civil rights conflict needed to be resolved to help fight the War on Poverty just as the War on Poverty needed to be resolved to help end racial discrimination. Unfortunately, the War on Poverty was not nearly as organized as the fight for civil rights.

The 1960s was simultaneously a decade of enlightenment and a decade of turbulence. Social conditions and public attitudes changed as the civil rights movement moved into high gear, the public became aware of environmental issues, women's liberation had its modern-day awakening, and black Americans edged into the public consciousness in positive ways through television and movies. Despite these and other events that affirmed America's claim that it was the greatest society on the planet, the 1960s also showed its ugly side as the nation endured substantial turbulence in the forms of continued racism, race riots, sexism, and sometimes violent anti–Vietnam War demonstrations. Overshadowing the turbulence was the assassination of a popular young president whose social initiatives faltered in the face of obstinate members of the U.S. Congress.

Johnson Becomes President.

When Lyndon Johnson took the presidential oath of office on 22 November 1963, he was well aware of the many attempts at positive advancements that had been put forward by his predecessor, John F. Kennedy. During Johnson's term as vice president, President Kennedy had tried to pass legislation through Congress for federal aid to education, and he had initiated plans for Medicare and tax cuts. Moreover, the president had supported the August 1963 March on Washington that was meant to pressure Congress into passing a civil rights bill. Unfortunately, Kennedy did not know how to work with Congress to pass these bills. If Kennedy struggled in his dealings with the legislative branch, his successor, Johnson, had little such trouble; Johnson himself had long been a leader in the Senate. Arguably the finest manipulator of Congress ever seen in the Oval Office, Johnson pushed through Kennedy's ideas and programs to help the poor. Johnson understood that in doing so he would establish his own legacy.

The country was rapidly changing early in the 1960s, but the one constant negative was the economic plight of the nation's poor. During the last four months of his presidency Kennedy had become interested in poverty, but little was done before his death. Johnson went beyond some of the studies that Kennedy had ordered by essentially declaring war on the nation's economic ills. Laws passed to help the poor came fast and furious amid both great support and great opposition.

Academics and nonacademics alike have analyzed the moral sincerity of Johnson's commitment to attacking poverty and debated why the president was so fixated on this issue. The economist Lester Thurow theorized that the Cold War heavily influenced Johnson's War on Poverty. According to Thurow, the president's initiatives were designed to prevent the Soviet Union from overtaking the United States economically. Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward argued instead that the War on Poverty was designed to prevent alienating blacks who were put off by local Democrats; blacks across the country were denied patronage and adequate municipal services. Not implementing the War on Poverty or something like it threatened Democratic control of the White House.

Critics of these theories counter by pointing out that the United States certainly exaggerated the military and economic threat posed by the Soviet Union; the United States plainly had the most productive and wealthiest society on the planet. In accounting for the influence of the Cold War on American domestic policy, a better argument might be that the War on Poverty, like civil rights legislation, was aimed to take propaganda tools away from the Soviet Union. So long as black Americans were poorly treated, the Soviet Union had an advantage in the ideological wars. Civil rights legislation and the War on Poverty were tools used by American leaders to prevent the Soviets from ideologically enhancing themselves in the face of America's most shameful attitude and policy: racism.

Indeed, as Piven and Cloward claim, the War on Poverty can also be viewed as a federal counter to poor treatment of blacks at the local level. Black Americans were the most politically impotent group in the country, and they were not given patronage positions in the numbers that white Americans received them. It is doubtful, however, that Johnson would risk the future of the Democratic Party, particularly in the South, just because northern local politicians snubbed black voters. Johnson's vision seems to have been greater than local politics: he viewed the racist treatment of blacks through the context of American history. Moreover, black Americans across the country were beginning to understand that the Republican Party had turned away from them. Johnson seems deliberately to have chosen to use his political capital for the glory of helping poor blacks and whites across the nation, not to help a few blacks in selected places.

No matter the motivations for the War on Poverty, Johnson faced several problems getting it started. There were no formal programs to fight poverty, there were no influential advocates for the poor, there was no visible expert on the subject within the political realm, and there was no one to run such a program.

The president solved one of his problems on 1 February 1964 by naming a reluctant Sargent Shriver as the War on Poverty's director. Shriver at the time was director of the Peace Corps and was married to one of President Kennedy's sisters, Eunice. Shriver, like Johnson, desired to end poverty but had little idea of how to do it. Still, the two men plunged in with the goal of not only relieving the symptoms of poverty but totally destroying the so-called culture of poverty. Realizing that the white middle class might view poverty legislation as creating a system of unearned handouts, Johnson and Shriver worked to make this constituency understand that all would benefit, not just the poor and inner-city blacks.

Regardless of who benefited, administration officials and social critics alike agreed that taking no action against poverty threatened the nation's stability and welfare. Critics of Johnson's antipoverty program noted that poverty rates began to fall in 1960, three years before the president took office, making legislation unnecessary. Johnson's stated goal, however, was to attack not only poverty but its root causes as well.

The Johnson administration began the War on Poverty by successfully sponsoring the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which was a blend of several programs. Within this act programs such as the Job Corps, Community Action Programs, and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), all administered by the newly created Office of Economic Opportunity, were begun. Moreover, employers were able to receive loans to hire the unemployed.

The focus of the Economic Opportunity Act was work. Impoverished teens were able to complete their education and develop marketable skills through the Job Corps, which provided work training and work-study programs. Community Action Programs let local communities develop their own job plans. VISTA acted as a domestic Peace Corps, with students from around the country teaching job skills to those who lacked the knowledge and training.

Medicare, Medicaid, the food-stamp program, school lunch programs, federal aid to education, aid to dependent children, student loans and grants for college tuition, and the Model Cities Act were among the Great Society programs that helped the poor. These and other bills were not necessarily well thought out—in that respect they mirrored New Deal programs—but many of them were remarkably effective and remained in force in the early twenty-first century.


Even though these programs helped the black and the poor, or maybe because they did so, opposition to the War on Poverty increased throughout the 1960s. Much of the opposition came from southern segregationists, who, like many others, viewed the Great Society and the War on Poverty as one and the same because black Americans benefited from each. Southern Democrats in particular were disturbed by government-issued food stamps. They worried, correctly, that nationalizing the food-stamp program would benefit blacks in their communities. President Johnson privately admitted to civil rights leaders that the poverty bill was indeed a civil rights bill, and it helped the poor, black and white.

Meanwhile, the conservative Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, who ran against Johnson in the 1964 presidential election, spoke for many Republicans when he criticized the War on Poverty as a “dole for the poor, offered cynically for votes.” When he signed the Economic Opportunity Act on 20 August 1964, President Johnson answered Goldwater by stating, “This is not in any sense a cynical proposal to exploit the poor with the promise of a handout or a dole. We know—we learned long ago—that answer is no answer. The measure before me this morning for signature offers the answer that its title implies—the answer of opportunity.”

Politics may have been at the heart of many who opposed Johnson's initiatives, but others decried the costs. The War on Poverty was expensive. To the dismay of fiscal conservatives and those concerned with federal control in local school matters, more than a billion dollars were appropriated to improve primary and secondary school systems, and more money was made available to build up library and textbook resources for public and private schools. Johnson argued that it would cost the nation more, in dollars and national health and security, not to support the schools. Meanwhile, those farther to the political left criticized the War on Poverty for not going far enough.

The aim of antipoverty programs was to help those who had little, but frustration remained. Race riots broke out across the country between 1964 and 1968, adding fodder for critics of the Democratic administration. Johnson felt that the riots were the result of “the revolution of rising expectations”—that political and economic equality were taking too long. Conservatives, for their part, claimed that the riots represented a breakdown of society. In their view the “easy handouts” that came with the War on Poverty encouraged irresponsibility: Johnson's programs had “rewarded lawlessness, pandered to criminals, and squandered the hard-earned tax dollars of hard-working Americans” (Flamm, p. 102). These and other criticisms registered with many whites, resulting in a growing conservative backlash. The War on Poverty threatened to cost the Democratic Party solid southern support.

From 1960 to 1967 the black middle class doubled, and over a ten-year span ending in 1967 the unemployment rate dropped by more than half. Despite this progress, however, the antipoverty campaign never did reach its potential. One reason was Vietnam. Johnson refused to raise taxes; instead, as more time and energy were put into the escalation of the Vietnam War, he cut back on his domestic programs, which ultimately suffered from benign neglect. Johnson admitted as much, saying, “That bitch of a war killed the lady I really loved—the Great Society.”


As it unfolded, the War of Poverty was a victim of the constant conservative lament that it represented too much waste, too much money lavished on the poor, too much red tape, and too much government intervention. Although the white middle class actually benefited from the Great Society through farm subsidies, aid to education, and expanded social security, Johnson tended to focus publicly on the poor, giving the impression that they were the only beneficiaries of the antipoverty program. Richard Nixon skillfully took advantage of this impression and helped facilitate a racial backlash when he ran for president in 1968.

Nixon's inauguration in January 1969 was the beginning of a new round of attacks on black Americans and the War on Poverty. His so-called southern strategy helped win southern voters away from the Democratic Party. Nixon and his Republican successors continued beating the anti–War on Poverty drum. As the California governor Ronald Reagan flippantly quipped in a radio address, “Poverty won.”

Poverty may have won in Reagan's opinion, but its rate in 1960 was at 22.4 percent. When Richard Nixon's first term ended in 1973, it was cut in half to 11.1 percent. The rate remained steady before increasing during Reagan's first presidential term (1981–1985) to 15.3 percent. For the next ten years it fluctuated between 12.8 percent to 15.1 percent. The poverty rate dropped again during Bill Clinton's eight years in office (1993–2001), to 11.3 percent in 2000. The poverty rate eventually rose to 12.4 percent by 2004.

Poverty is clearly still a problem in the United States, but the poor are in a less precarious situation than they were before the advent of Lyndon Johnson's antipoverty programs. Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, college loans and grants, and a variety of other War on Poverty programs remain in force despite attempts to water them down or totally dismantle them.

[See also Head Start; Johnson, Lyndon B.; Johnson, Lyndon B., Administration of; Opportunity; Poor People's Campaign; Poverty, Culture of; and Public Assistance .]


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  • Flamm, Michael W. Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
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