Sunday, March 29, 2015

The War on Poverty: Was It Lost?

Christopher Jencks

Legacies of the War on Poverty edited by Martha J. Bailey and Sheldon Danziger Russell Sage, 309 pp., $39.95 (paper)

This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort. It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. —Lyndon Johnson, State of the Union Address, January 8, 1964

Some years ago, the federal government declared war on poverty, and poverty won. —Ronald Reagan, State of the Union Address, January 25, 1988

Lyndon Johnson became president in November 1963. In January 1964 he committed the United States to a war on poverty. In August he sought and gained authority to expand the war in Vietnam. Of course, the War on Poverty was only a figure of speech—a political and economic promise, not a war from which young men would return in body bags. Nonetheless, most Americans look back on the two wars as kindred failures. Both have had an exemplary part in the disillusionment with government that has been reshaping American politics since the 1970s. Asked about their impression of the War on Poverty, Americans are now twice as likely to say “unfavorable” as “favorable.” In one poll, given four alternative ways of describing how much the War on Poverty reduced poverty, 20 percent chose “a major difference,” 41 percent chose “a minor difference,” 13 percent chose “no difference,” and 23 percent chose “made things worse.”

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