The Battle Hymn of the War on Poverty: How the call to empathy helped mobilize a nation

Reference: The Nation

January 14, 2014

By Sasha Abramsky

On May 5, 1964, four months after Lyndon Johnson committed America to a “War on Poverty,” Sargent Shriver addressed a meeting of the Advertising Council in Washington, DC. At the time, Shriver was working two jobs: he was head of the Peace Corps and, simultaneously, had been tapped by the new president as a special assistant to run Johnson’s anti-poverty initiative.

Standing before his audience, Shriver talked of a meeting that he’d had with an unnamed journalist the previous week. The journalist told him, he reported, that “before you can do anything about poverty, you’ll have to fumigate the closet in which Americans keep their ideas about the poor. You’ll have to rid America of all its clichés about the poor, clichés like the one which says that only the lazy and worthless are poor, or that the poor are always with us.”

The newly appointed special assistant to the president looked at his Advertising Council audience and said, “I think she may be right. Our minds are so cluttered up with myths, slogans and clichés about the poor that it would be a great public service if you would help us clear the air.”

For Shriver, the language in which the problem of poverty and the lives of the poor were framed was of critical importance. At the time, he was campaigning to get Congress to pass the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA), the legislative foundation for Johnson’s War on Poverty. He was also busy creating the Office of Economic Opportunity, which would serve as the political and intellectual nerve center of the multipronged campaign. Working long hours, he and an all-star anti-poverty team—among them John Kenneth Galbraith, Saul Alinsky, future AFL-CIO head Lane Kirkland, Michael Harrington and a slew of others—brainstormed strategies to build up job training programs; involve community groups in local rejuvenation efforts; bring legal services into poor communities; and improve the nation’s decaying infrastructures for physical and mental health, proper nutrition and drug treatment. But they quickly found their ideas butting up against public perceptions. More than four out of five Americans, according to opinion polls, believed the anti-poverty campaign to be unwinnable.

Perceptions, the War on Poverty’s A-team realized, could make or break their effort. If the myths and clichés remained intact, it would be a hard slog to get the EOA passed; but if they were increasingly held up to the light and challenged, Shriver believed, the administration could build irresistible momentum for the bill’s passage.

And so in the early days of the war, Shriver launched an all-out effort to shift Americans’ understanding of poverty and transform the language in which poor people were framed. It was an empathy push on a par with that used by abolitionists, suffragists and civil rights leaders to expand the borders of democracy—a campaign, says cognitive linguist George Lakoff, that was in many ways the mature expression of an empathetic language that had emerged over nearly three centuries of Western political philosophy and embedded itself in American political practices. Says Lakoff, “The American conception of democracy developed over a period of time and is based on empathy. Democracy is based on citizens caring about each other.”

Shriver and his team understood this, and as they worked to prevent existing biases from derailing the War on Poverty, they did so in a way calculated to draw on that long tradition. So when Shriver addressed the ad executives on behalf of his boss’s program, he was asking them to use their skills to do the same: to catalyze a collective empathetic surge.

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