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50 years on, what strides have we made in the war on poverty?

January 8, 2014 at 12:00 AM EST
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson launched a broad platform to abolish American poverty. Fifty years later, Kwame Holman looks back on the historic legislation, while Jeffrey Brown talks to presidential historian Robert Dallek, Angela Glover Blackwell of PolicyLink and Glenn Hubbard of Columbia University about our progress.
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GWEN IFILL: Today marks 50 years since the United States declared a war on poverty, but victory has not yet been declared.

Kwame Holman has the backstory.

KWAME HOLMAN: When President Lyndon Johnson took the stage for his first State of the Union address, the nation still was mourning the loss of President John Kennedy, assassinated just seven weeks earlier.

PRESIDENT LYNDON B. JOHNSON: Let us carry forward the plans and programs of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, not because of our sorrow or sympathy, but because they are right.

(APPLAUSE)

LYNDON B. JOHNSON: This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.

(APPLAUSE)

KWAME HOLMAN: At the time, one in five Americans were living in poverty, and many of them were concentrated in the south-central mountain towns of Appalachia.

The president and his wife, Lady Bird, toured those impoverished communities. They met with families of unemployed sawmill operators in Kentucky and tobacco farmers in North Carolina, many living in shacks without plumbing or sanitation.

Attorney Larry Levinson worked with President Johnson during the 1960s to create legislation for the Great Society reforms.

LAWRENCE LEVINSON, former Deputy Counsel to President Lyndon B. Johnson: What was surprising was where poverty was in America and who were the poor.

And the first thing we noted was that four-fifths of Americans that were poor were white Americans. And based on the data we had, we were able to go to Congress and convince a lot of the folks that were naysayers in the Congress that, look, you’re not dealing necessarily with a racial issue.

KWAME HOLMAN: President Johnson signed a $947.5 million anti-poverty bill into law in 1964.

It included Head Start, which began as an eight-week-long summer project for some 500,000 preschool-aged children from low-income communities. It has since expanded to a year-round program serving 30 million children and their families.

The law also created VISTA, the domestic version of the Peace Corps, along with other job training and education programs.

LYNDON B. JOHNSON: There are those fearing the terrible darkness of despairing poverty, despite their long years of labor and expectations, who will now look up to see the light of hope and realization.

KWAME HOLMAN: The following year, 1965, President Johnson enacted reforms to Social Security, and a guarantee of health insurance for the elderly and the poor through Medicare and Medicaid.

The official poverty rate has dropped since Johnson’s era. But still there are some 50 million Americans, 13 million of them children, living below the federal poverty line. That is set at less than $12,000 a year for an individual, just more than $23,000 for a family of four.

GWEN IFILL: So, 50 years later, how effective was the war on poverty?

Jeffrey Brown has more.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for that, we’re joined by historian Robert Dallek. Among his many books is “Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson 1961-1973.” Angela Glover Blackwell, founder of CEO and PolicyLink, a poverty-focused research organization, and Glenn Hubbard, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush and now dean of Columbia University’s School of Business.

And welcome to off you.

Charles Dallek, I want to start with you — Robert Dallek. Excuse me.

I want to start with you to set the scene. What drove LBJ to undertake a war on poverty?

ROBERT DALLEK, presidential historian: Well, he wasn’t the first one to want a war on poverty.

In fact, what I find so interesting is, Herbert Hoover in August 1928 said no country in the world was closer to abolishing poverty than the United States. And then, of course, we had the Great Depression. In 1962, a man named Michael Harrington, who was a socialist, part of the Democratic Catholic Worker’s movement, published a book called “The Other America: Poverty in the United States.”

JEFFREY BROWN: It has had a great, great impact, huh?

ROBERT DALLEK: Well, what really gave it a great impact was the fact that Dwight Macdonald, the critic, then published a discussion of it in “The New Yorker” called “Our Invisible Poor.”

And that created this sense that America has a problem. And John Kennedy when he was in West Virginia for the primary in his struggle to win the nomination for presidency, he got a firsthand glimpse of the suffering, the difficulties that people had in that state.

And in 1963, he was talking about having a war on poverty in his second term. So, after he died, the Council — the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Walter Heller, said to Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy was talking about a war on poverty. And Johnson said, that’s my kind of program.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what was the country that Johnson was when he — when this started? How serious was the state of poverty?

ROBERT DALLEK: It was serious.

There was something like 22 percent of the population which was living under the poverty line, which, as I understand it at the time was something like $3,000 for a family of four. And Johnson, he wanted to — typical of Johnson, there was a kind of overreach. He wanted to cure poverty and abolish it forever and anon.

Now, he knew this was going to be quite a struggle, because how do you deal with 22 percent of the population that’s under the poverty line? And so he gave that famous speech, State of the Union, part of the State of the Union, that he was declaring a war on poverty. And then the struggles began, how do you do it?

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, let me bring in our other guests, Angela Blackwell, you first.

From the perspective of 50 years, what was accomplished, do you think? And in what ways was it successful?

ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL, PolicyLink: In many ways, the war on poverty was very successful.

It really brought in programs like Head Start and food stamps and things that really kept a lot of people out of poverty who otherwise would have been in poverty. So our poverty level now actually represents the progress that we have paid by creating a platform that we are not supposed to let people fall under.

We have made progress, but poverty continues to be a huge problem in this country. And part of the problem is that not only do we have people who are poor and unemployed. We have so many people who are employed and poor. The economy is failing America.

And the suffering and the poverty that we’re seeing now both reflects safety net programs that have been tattered and an economy that’s not serving the American people well.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, and, Glenn Hubbard, from your 50-year perspective, you have another take on this, right?

GLENN HUBBARD, Columbia University School of Business: Well, I think the war on poverty has had some success.

Certainly, poverty among the elderly has declined sharply over this period. And, in fact, poverty would have been much worse without the programs of the war on poverty. You can, of course, look the other way and say that we’re about where we were when we started in terms of the official poverty measure, but other research says we are doing a bit better.

To me, the real issue is, could we have done better still? And I think the answer is an obvious yes, that we have done well on the safety net part, but not well be helping people achieve success in America. A better example of that are things like the Earned Income Tax Credit that reward work. To help provide jobs and rewarding work, that’s really the best war on poverty.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so just to continue that with you, Glenn Hubbard, was that a failure of economic vision, of the theory of the war from the beginning? How do you see that?

GLENN HUBBARD: I think it was incomplete.

I think the war was strong on safety net. It did have programs like Head Start, like Upward Bound that were part of empowerment. But I think we need a much larger focus on education, on training, on skill development, and, yes, on things like the EITC that support people in the work force.

JEFFREY BROWN: Angela Blackwell, do you want to come back in?

ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: I agree with everything that was just said. And we need to really focus on this problem of inequality.

We have had growth in America. But it has only benefited one part of the population. We need to really focus on how to grow good jobs, increase the minimum wage, bring greater — greater voice to workers. We need stronger unions. And we need to do the things that Glenn just talked about in terms of preparing young people for 21st century work, for the economy of the 21st century.

And let’s not forget, with the shifting demographics and people of color quickly becoming the majority in this country, we need to remove racial barriers, make sure people who have been incarcerated can get work. We need to deal with low-income communities that are holding people back.

So many people are poor because they live in communities that aren’t connecting them to work and opportunity. We need a big agenda that actually focuses on building an economy for the 21st century that includes everybody.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me bring Robert Dallek back in.

You wanted to jump in at something you heard, huh?

ROBERT DALLEK: These were the same frustrations that Lyndon Johnson felt in 1968, as his presidency was coming to an end, because he said, he wanted the program to be a hand up, not a handout.

And he was very frustrated by the fact that a central part of the program, it was called Community Action, CAP, Community Action Program. And it opened up all sorts of political battles between local officials, mayors, city council people, and people who were involved in the community.

And Johnson was frustrated by the fact that there wasn’t enough in the way of education, enough of providing skills to people. See, his model was the National Youth Administration, which he had been the head of in Texas, and Roosevelt’s idea that you give people skills training so that they can find work and get out of that limitation of poverty.

JEFFREY BROWN: It is striking.

Let me bring you back in, Glenn Hubbard — striking that of course a lot of these same issues are now very much still on the table and back on the table, right, questions of economic inequality, and raising the minimum wage. There are the kinds of debates that we have on this program where you and Angela Blackwell might disagree on some of the policies, but you are still agreeing that something more needs to be done.

GLENN HUBBARD: These are huge issues. And something definitely needs to be done.

I guess I wouldn’t think the things like supporting higher minimum wages are the answer. I don’t think that provides employment. We do need to support skills for people coming in. And we need to support their incomes, things like the Earned Income Tax Credit. If we as a society want to provide better opportunities for work, we need to pay for it. Neither side of the aisle is in my view bold enough on this.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what — what — go ahead, Angela Blackwell.

ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: Yes.

If we raise the minimum wage to $10, five million people will be bought out of poverty. People who work shouldn’t be poor.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Hubbard?

GLENN HUBBARD: I agree with that, but why use the minimum wage to do that, as opposed to the Earned Income Credit?

This is something that — as a society, if we want this, we should pay for it, not in terms of job loss for others, or higher prices, or lower profits. This is something we ought to pay for.

JEFFREY BROWN: Robert Dallek, you listen this and you are saying these were debates that were — that Johnson would have been familiar with. And they have gone through — through time.

ROBERT DALLEK: And he would have been pleased, I must say, to understand, to see that there is a debate again about this.

JEFFREY BROWN: He would have been pleased?

ROBERT DALLEK: He would have been pleased that there’s — now, he would have been unhappy that poverty wasn’t abolished, but he would have been pleased that it has come back into focus, and that people are recalling his war on poverty 50 years later, because I think your other two guests are absolutely right. This is something that’s front and center, and we need to deal with it in this country.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we on the program of course will continue all of these looks at all these issues and debates.

Robert Dallek, Angela Blackwell and Glenn Hubbard, thank you, all three, very much.

ROBERT DALLEK: Thank you.

ANGELA GLOVER BLACKWELL: Thank you.

GLENN HUBBARD: Thanks.