News and analysis
December 08, 2013

Anniversary of Poverty Speech Renews Battle Over Helping the Poor

Walter Bennett/Bettmann/CORBIS

President Johnson visits a Kentucky family.

Avi Poster, co-founder of a new grass-roots antipoverty coalition in Nashville, sees next year as an ideal time to get policy makers thinking more about how to help the millions of Americans who are struggling to make ends meet.

The country will be commemorating the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, and that should offer a reminder, he says, that “in a country as rich and plentiful as this, those who 'have’ have a moral obligation to help those who don’t.”

“The War on Poverty had periods of great success, and they were defined by public will,” says Mr. Poster, whose coalition, A Voice, plans to work with the mayor’s office to commemorate the anniversary in Nashville. “If there’s public will, there’s no reason we can’t continue to have success.”

Mr. Poster joins a variety of other nonprofit leaders and policy makers who plan to use the anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of an “unconditional war on poverty in America”—made in a State of the Union address on January 8, 1964—to shape the debate about how the country should help its most vulnerable citizens, especially at a time of growing income inequality.

Supporters of President Johnson’s legacy want to highlight its accomplishments, while critics say the effort failed and it’s time to move in a different direction.

Planned activities include:

  • Half in Ten—a campaign that gets its name from its goal to cut poverty in half within 10 years, or by 2020—is sponsoring a “50th Anniversary of the War on Poverty Storyteller Contest,” seeking stories from people who have benefited from a social safety-net program. The winner, who will be announced December 16, will meet with Rep. Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, who will read the story on the House floor.
  • The Russell Sage Foundation has scheduled an event next month to discuss a book that its president, Sheldon Danziger, co-edited: Legacies of the War on Poverty, a compilation of studies by poverty scholars.
  • Robert Woodson Sr., president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which provides training and other aid to nonprofits that help low-income people, is trying to raise money to unite 40 to 50 grass-roots leaders at a national symposium next year to assess the War on Poverty’s legacy. Mr. Woodson, a critic of the effort’s “big government” approach, says he wants to explore ways to help low-income people become self-sufficient and “agents of their own transformation.”

The topic of poverty has been pushed to the back burner politically in recent years as lawmakers in Washington and many state capitals have been preoccupied with bitter battles over how to close government budget deficits, as Republicans, especially those affiliated with the small-government Tea Party, have pushed for deep spending cuts and Democrats generally have advocated higher taxes on the wealthy.

President Johnson’s entreaty ushered in an enormous amount of new spending on programs to help low-income people, including many that are still operating 50 years later: Head Start, Medicaid, Medicare, the Job Corps, food stamps, school aid, student loans, community health centers, legal services, and more.

Nonprofits manage or receive payments from most of those programs. But today, thanks partly to the Great Recession, the poverty rate has stood at roughly 15 percent for the past three years—below the rates that were seen before the War on Poverty but up from the low of 11.1 percent in 1973.

“Today 46 million people live in poverty and 20 million Americans live on less than half of the poverty level,” Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican House Budget Committee chairman, said when opening a hearing on poverty in July. “The fact is, we’re losing the War on Poverty, and we need to know why.”

Mr. Ryan plans to draft his own anti-poverty plan next year to coincide with the 50th anniversary. But some antipoverty activists are trying to counter the Wisconsin congressman’s argument.

“That poverty remains higher than any of us would want should not be a reason to denigrate the efforts that are working,” says Sharon Parrott, vice president for budget policy and economic opportunity at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal economic think tank.

The center has issued a series of studies arguing that the official poverty rate, which is based on income, doesn’t take into account the help that low-income people get from noncash benefits like food stamps, rent subsidies, and tax credits.

Telling Stories

Half in Ten says it is sponsoring its storytelling contest as a way to “convey the successes of War on Poverty and other assistance programs” so it can “reset” the debate over poverty.

“We’re trying to provide a platform for low-income people themselves to speak directly to policy makers, directly to the public, about the ways these investments have impacted their lives,” says Melissa Boteach, director of the campaign.

Half in Ten is a project of the advocacy arm of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank; the Coalition on Human Needs, an alliance of social-service and other nonprofits; and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Mobilizing the Poor

The Center for Community Change, which promotes grass-roots organizing, also wants the public to hear more from people who are suffering economically from public policies or corporate activities.

The center plans to start a campaign next year to cut poverty by 20 percent over 12 years. One of its key goals: to mobilize 1 million low-income people who are not now politically active to win policy changes at the state and local levels that could serve as models for national action.

“There needs to be a movement of low-income folks, just as the civil-rights movement drove the pressure put on [President John F.] Kennedy and Johnson in the ’60s to address both civil rights and poverty,” says Steven Savner, director of public policy. The campaign aims to make poverty a major issue in the 2016 presidential debates.

Greater Dependence

But critics of the War on Poverty will also be weighing in during the anniversary conversations.

Mr. Woodson of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, which has developed a program to reduce violence in schools, says the approach of the last 50 years has fostered dependency among poor people, created a “poverty industrial complex,” and weakened black families, for example, by compensating unmarried women when they have additional children.

Mr. Woodson says that for the last seven months he has been arranging for Rep. Ryan to meet once or twice a month with neighborhood leaders in cities across the country.

He says he wants Mr. Ryan to see that the country’s values come from civic institutions and “solutions to the problems of poverty are not found in the halls of great universities; they’re found among the people suffering the problem.”

Mr. Ryan’s spokesman said he was not available to for an interview about proposals he will include in his poverty plan. As a prominent House leader, he has advocated cutting safety-net programs like Medicaid as part of a broader effort to rein in the national debt and to require people who receive aid like food stamps and rental assistance to have jobs, seek work, or get job training.

Another Alternative

Other conservatives are also showing more interest in poverty.

At a recent conference, Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, urged people on the right to “declare peace on the safety net,” calling aid to the truly indigent “one of the greatest achievements of our society.”

However, he says the “central planks of the War on Poverty have been completely discredited” in leaving so many poor people dependent on government aid rather than moving them into the middle class. He says President Obama’s policies have made things worse, for example, by overregulation that has hindered job creation and entrepreneurship. “There is literally only one thing that has expanded opportunities for the poor and that’s the free-enterprise system,” he says.

Mr. Brooks says AEI is stepping up its work on poverty. He himself is writing a book and plans to hire at least one or two new poverty scholars.

More Opportunities

One of the biggest coalitions working to give low-income people a leg up, Opportunity Nation, rarely uses the word “poverty” and prefers the word “opportunity.”

Mark Edwards, executive director, says the decision came after a year of conversations with poor people. “Poverty is not a term they use to describe their own experience,” he says.

The group, an alliance of 250 nonprofits, businesses, and other organizations that seeks bipartisan support for efforts to “expand economic opportunity” and “improve social mobility,” has as its signature effort an annual “opportunity index” that rates states and counties in areas related to jobs, education, and civic life.

It recently endorsed a Senate bill introduced by two lawmakers, a Republican and a Democrat, that aims to make job-training programs more effective. But in a sign of the political times, the legislation calls for no new money. Instead, it would limit the awarding of federal money to programs that have shown superior results.

Many advocates agree that the fight against poverty today must be a different animal than the one President Johnson waged in the 1960s, because the economy has changed. It does not bounce back as quickly from recessions, wages have stagnated, unemployment is high, and far more women work.

“There will be a battle about the War on Poverty and what it achieved and did not achieve,” says Jodie Levin-Epstein, deputy director of the Center for Law and Social Policy. “The bigger battle should be around solutions that address the poverty of today.”

See all of our coverage timed to the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty in this special section.

Send an e-mail to Suzanne Perry.