Evaluating The War On Poverty In Its 50th Year


Lyndon B. Johnson

The War on Poverty is in its 50th year.

There have been some victories. But how might the man who declared this war view America’s poverty today, especially among women, people of color, and the rural poor.

On January 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared an unconditional War on Poverty in his State of the Union Address. A grieving nation longed to hear where its new leader would take the country after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November of 1963. President Johnson took a bold step toward social reform.

Johnson was born poor on a Texas farm and knew first-hand the misery of poverty. He asked Congress for better schools, health, homes, training, job opportunities to “help more Americans, especially young Americans, to escape from squalor.” He sought programs to assist the elderly and the rural poor.

Congress responded with the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) of 1964. The War on Poverty had begun. The EOA created programs to improve housing, education, job training, and Social Security. President Johnson’s War on Poverty continued in the footsteps of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s.

Johnson wanted to cure poverty and, perhaps, prevent it. He asked to increase the minimum wage and unemployment insurance.  His War on Poverty began in Appalachia, an area 205,000 square miles stretching from Mississippi to upstate New York where millions of poverty-stricken White Americans live in rural communities.

In 1965, one in three persons in Appalachia lived in poverty. Today, Appalachia’s per capita income is still about 25 percent lower than the national average, with a poverty rate 13 percent higher than the rest of the country, according to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. A quarter of Kentucky lives below the poverty line.

About 47 million Americans are in poverty, according to the Census Bureau. The official poverty line is $23,283 per year for a family of four with two adults and two children. Most poor families are led by single mothers, many working minimum wage jobs.  

A high school diploma is the threshold that most directly pushes workers above poverty. However, half of Black male teens and even more Native Americans fail to graduate from high school.  Only 51 percent of teen mothers earn a high school diploma, says a 2014 Report by Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress.

In sheer numbers, most children born to unmarried parents are White, non-Hispanic, followed by Latino children, and finally Black children, according to the Shriver Report. It is the less educated and younger women, of all races, living in poverty who are more likely to have children outside of marriage, the Report says.

According to the United Nations’ World Women Report 2010, single mothers around the world are more likely to live in poverty. Gender equality translates into better prospects and greater well-being of children, reducing poverty of future generations, based on the United Nations Development Programme.

Johnson pushed for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to end job discrimination based on race, gender, religion, and national origin. Women and people of color have benefitted from the Act and litigation to enforce fairness in employment opportunities. However, unfairness remains. Women earn about 70% of every dollar compared with men. 

In 1954, the first year unemployment rates were recorded; Black unemployment was 9 percent when only 5 percent of Whites were unemployed, according to Drew a Pew Research Center report. Today, the national jobless rate is 6.9 percent; but it is 12.6% for African-Americans, and 25% for many Black teens.

Johnson said in his State of the Union Address that poverty is a national problem requiring strategies based on principles not politics. However, recently, a divided Congress voted against extension of unemployment benefits leaving millions of the unemployed to fall deeper into poverty.

Johnson’s war specifically included increased Social Security benefits for the elderly and disabled. Today, about 6.4 million people aged 65 and older are poor. Without Social Security, America’s poverty rate would increase to 25 percent, and nearly 24 million seniors would be living in poverty. 

Johnson understood the role Food Stamps played in the lives of poor families then. However, due to a recent stalemate in Congress over the Farm Bill, millions lost Food Stamp benefits with a politically charged $5 billion cut in that program.

Head Start programs are a reminder of the Johnson era. But gone are most government funded community centers, education, and job training programs like the Job Corps. Funding for police replaced community-based anti-poverty programs under Republican and Democratic administrations.

As upward mobility fails, the poor languish – but probably not in the squalor of 50 years ago.  It is not just an American problem.  According to a new report by relief organization Oxfam, 85 people have as much wealth as 46% of the world’s population.

In 1964, President Johnson warned that no single weapon or strategy will win the War on Poverty.

He said this fight must take place in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the Courthouse to the White House.

A War on Poverty will not be easily won. But, as Johnson said, it is a war America cannot afford to lose.


Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City, is author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present,” and a writer covering the U.S. Supreme Court, the United Nations, and major legal issues. @GBrowneMarshall



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