The War on Poverty

Reference: JSource original

The term “War on Poverty” originates from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 State of the Union address. Johnson himself came from poverty, having grown up in rural Texas and never advancing in education beyond an Associate’s degree from a teacher’s college. After taking office in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson made launching the “Great Society”— his term for an America in which the poor are not forgotten — his number one priority. Michael Harrington’s 1962 book “The Other America” was an eye-opening exposé of the poverty-stricken Americans unrepresented by the media and neglected by the government. Harrington’s work was hugely influential on Johnson’s Great Society plans, and brought the problem of poverty into the public eye.

However, the conflict between North and South Vietnam raged thousands of miles away, and pressure was placed on the fervently anti-Communist United States to intervene. Johnson was forced to choose: escalate the war on Communist Southeast Asia, or continue his life-long goal of ending poverty at home. Under great pressure from Congress and the CIA, Johnson chose to pour funding into the military, and while he was able to establish programs like Food Stamps, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, these advancements were overshadowed by the complete failure of the Vietnam War. It was a choice that would define his Presidency and cause him to lose the trust of the majority of Americans.

Lyndon Johnson signs the Medicare Bill – July 30, 1965

Two decades later, President Ronald Reagan further discredited Johnson by stating that LBJ had “declared war on poverty, and poverty won.” This statement came at the same time as the conservative movement was gaining momentum in America, which began a major political push to end the progressive welfare programs established by the Johnson administration. The fear that America would become a “welfare state” as a result of these programs, eventually devolving into a system comparable to Communism, continues to permeate American society.

The term “War on Poverty” has been adopted worldwide, particularly in third-world countries where hunger and poverty are devastating and widespread. The United Nations has even made numerous mentions in recent years to a “Global War on Poverty,” calling upon all countries, both developed and undeveloped, to make the poor their priority.

The War on Welfare

The fear of America becoming a “welfare state” is leftover from the days of McCarthyism and anti-Communist sentiment, and many conservatives believe that welfare programs are detrimental to American society, rather than beneficial as they are intended to be. With the rise of the Conservative movement and its push to slash the government programs set up during the Johnson administration, a new term has arisen: the War on Welfare. This phrase was coined by scholar Marisa Chappell in her 2010 book “The War on Welfare: Family, Poverty and Politics in Modern America,” and refers to the push-back against government funded public assistance.

Table of Contents

Background: President Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society

The Other America

The Great Recession of 2008 and The War on Poverty today: a failure?

Children and Poverty