WASHINGTON, D.C. — Fifty years ago, on January 8, 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson delivered his famous “War on Poverty” speech. It took place a few months after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” address. Johnson declared an “all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States.”
This speech would spur the creation of numerous programs and agencies directed to this end. Notable programs include: Head Start, food stamps (now SNAP), work study, Community Action Agencies, VISTA, Medicare and Medicaid.
Since 1964, numerous individuals have attempted to examine to what extent the United States has been successful in this war. Many, including the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, have taken a negative approach to this examination declaring that America has lost and poverty has won.
However, 50 years after this speech was given and the War on Poverty commenced, it seems to be questionable to say that poverty has won. In fact, it seems like an assertion that deliberately ignores the significant advances that have been made in the United States and across the world in the fight against poverty. To put it simply, it is doubtful that “America has lost the war on poverty.”
Since Johnson delivered the speech in 1964, average incomes among the poorest fifth of Americans have risen by more than 75 percent, including adjustments for both inflation and the fall of the household size. Furthermore, infant mortality in the United States has dropped sharply and severe child malnutrition has largely disappeared.
Furthermore, without Social Security, which was a direct product of this “war,” nearly half of seniors would be in poverty today. Instead, fewer than one seventh of seniors currently live in poverty. Also, before the adoption of Medicare, only half of seniors had some form of healthcare, while today, due to Medicare, healthcare is virtually universal for seniors.
In 2012, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, the United States’s social and economic safety net, made up of various programs implemented since Johnson’s speech, has kept 41 million people, including nine million children, out of poverty.
However, there is still much advancement that the U.S. can and should make in its battle against poverty. There still exists a clear racial disparity of the wealth and employment opportunities in the United States, something that Johnson clearly was concerned about when he gave his speech. In 2012, child poverty among African American children was at 29.2 percent of the population or 20 points higher than for white children.
Furthermore, America possess a relatively high amount of impoverished citizens compared to other wealthy nations worldwide. In 2012, 49.7 million people were classified as poor in America, including 13 million children. Moreover, roughly 16 million people, including 3.5 million children, live below half the poverty line.
Upon examination of this data, it seems rather harsh to label the U.S.’s fate in this war as simply a failure. While obstacles certainly remain, since President Johnson’s speech there has clear and substantial progress towards the goal he outlined of a nation without poverty.
U.S. politicians have taken contradictory views on the extent of this “war’s” success with opinions divided, rather unsurprisingly, down party lines.
Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) recently had this to say when discussing Johnson’s speech: “We must continue the fight championed by President Johnson that would ensure all Americans can support themselves and their families, and have the opportunity to contribute to our economy and to our society. This is how we build upon the progress that has been made over the past five decades, instead of taking action to reverse it.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Fla.) recently declared that “[w]hile this war may have been launched with the best of intentions, it’s clear we’re now engaged in a battle of attrition that has left more Americans in poverty than at any other point in our nation’s history.”
It seems then that the future progress of this war may be stalled as it and its various resulting programs fall victim to the sectarianism and gridlock that so characterize the modern day U.S. Congress. Interestingly enough, Johnson addressed this possibly of political division resulting in the inhibition of his goals in his speech: “If we fail, if we fritter and fumble our opportunity on needless, senseless quarrels between Democrats and Republicans … then history will rightfully judge us harshly.”
As Democrats and Republicans debate how successful this war truly is, both ignore the international aspects of Johnson’s speech.
Although his speech primarily concerned poverty inside the U.S., Johnson made it clear that international poverty was also a priority. One quote from the speech which attests to this is, “[W]e must make increased use of our food as an instrument of peace— making it available by sale or trade or loan or donation— to hungry people in all nations which tell us of their needs and accept proper conditions of distribution.” Johnson then later goes on to say, “[W]e must strengthen the ability of free nations everywhere to develop their independence and raise their standard of living.” Even his speech would end on an international note, expressing his desire for the end of global poverty as well as just in America, as he talks of “a world of peace and justice, and freedom and abundance, for our time and for all time to come.”
And with poverty worldwide trending downward, it seems that his war in fact could be considered a success. Of course, this global trending downward of poverty is not only the result of the United States and USAID. USAID was created three years prior in 1961 under the presidency and direction of John F. Kennedy, but the decline of poverty is also do in part to countless NGO’s and various other governments’ aid and development agencies.
Extreme poverty has fallen across the world in developing regions, since the 1990s. The proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day fell from 47 percent in 1990, to 24 percent in 2008. This is a reduction of over 2 billion people living in extreme poverty to 1.4 billion.
Also between 1990 and 2010, over two billion people gained access to improved drinking water sources, such as piped supplies and protected wells.
Furthermore, the proportion of urban residents in the developing world living in slums has declined from 39 percent in 2000 to 33 percent in 2012. This has meant that roughly 2000 million have gained access to either improved water sources, improved sanitation facilities or less crowded housing.
Thus, 50 years after President Lyndon B. Johnson’s declaration of an “all-out war” on poverty, one can see, quite clearly, that there has been significant progress on both the national and international front.
– Albert Cavallaro
Sources: Miller Center, Spotlight on Poverty, House Budget Committee Report, CBS, White House, NPR, UN, CBPP