LBJ's War on Poverty Sidetracked by Politics, Economics

Feb 13, 2014

President Lyndon B. Johnson on his poverty tour on May 7, 1964 in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Credit Cecil Stoughton / LBJ Library Photos

Fifty years ago in his state of the union address, President Lyndon Johnson declared "war on poverty." Today, there are still 50 million people in poverty in the U.S. But Yale Historian Jennifer Klein said that number doesn't mean Johnson's war was a failure.

Klein called Lyndon Johnson a "new dealer" in the model of FDR, who thought government intervention could help get people out of poverty. But she told WNPR's Where We Live that LBJ's strategy relied on ideas like community action and legal aid more than the direct jobs programs of the Roosevelt years.  

After initial success in cutting the poverty rate, Klein said the intervening decades of American domestic policy wiped out these gains.

"There was structural change in the economy," Klein said, "and the war on poverty didn't pay attention to that. And then in the 1970s, we didn't really think about what would actually be an industrial policy that would enable us to pay attention to a shifting economy. The second thing is, in some of the places where the war on poverty was most successful, it was also was raising political heat on the established political machinery."

That meant rollbacks in funding during the Republican administrations of Nixon and Reagan.

But Amos Smith, President and CEO of Community Action Agency of New Haven told Where We Live that the failures of government haven't been purely partisan. He cites the last two presidential election cycles - dominated by Barack Obama - a Democrat, and the first African American to win the White House. 

"Poverty, a discussion about how we treat our own people, didn't even arise in the last two national elections. It was not part of that conversation. I wonder why. We had 40 to 50 million people in poverty then," Smith said. "Why did we collude in missing that as an opportunity to have a conversation about how do we treat the least well among us?"

In Connecticut, some 372,000 residents had incomes less than the federal poverty level in 2012.  A report by the Connecticut Association for Community Action puts the number of those at or near poverty at 720,000.