The bigger the target, the easier it is to hit it.
A half century ago, Lyndon Baines Johnson, glowing with his 1964 presidential landslide victory over arch-conservative Republican Barry Goldwater, gave adversaries a target to gun down.
He declared an “unconditional war on poverty in America.” Its purpose was to give the poor what society denied them: the chance to better themselves and their families socially, economically and financially. LBJ guaranteed “every man has a chance to advance his welfare to the limit of his capacities.”
Has Johnson’s war on poverty delivered the goods? It’s easy to ridicule the Great Society because of its deficiencies. Some fixate on lack of welfare reform that leads citizens to depend on government aid. What these critics miss, however, are numerous initiatives to meet human need advanced by the War on Poverty.
President Johnson sported a big ego, as large as the Great Society’s agenda. He assumed his vision for social progress would fulfill most citizens’ needs. “The Great Society would offer something to everyone,” reported historian Doris Kearns (Goodwin) in an early book, “Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream.” She served in the Johnson Administration as a White House Fellow in 1967.
Kearns reviewed the Great Society’s expansive agenda: “Medicare for the old, educational assistance for the young, tax rebates for business, a higher minimum wage for labor, subsidies for farmers, vocational training for the unskilled, food for the hungry, housing for the homeless, poverty grants for the poor, clean highways for commuters, legal protection for the blacks, improved schooling for the Indians, rehabilitation for the lame, higher benefits for the unemployed, reduced quotas for the immigrants, auto safety for drivers, pensions for the retired, fair labeling for consumers, conservation for the hikers and the campers and more and more and more (p. 216).”
Talking potshots at the Great Society has become a cottage industry for conservative critics. They say it spawned welfare fraud, fostered habitual dependency on Uncle Sam and replaced hard work with handouts.
Challenging Poor to Succeed
President Ronald Reagan, in his 1988 State of the Union address, complained about how “the federal government fought the war on poverty and poverty won.” Instead, he retreated from helping the poor by advancing sizeable tax cuts for the rich. Reagan reduced welfare programs to build a fiscal agenda, paid for by huge budget deficits. He shrank social programs, challenging the poor to achieve success like he did.
Did poverty win this war?
Was Reagan’s claim “about a stagnating poverty rate even factually correct?” asks Alan S. Blinder, professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University. This former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve believes Reagan’s claim that poverty won the war on the poor doesn’t square with fiscal facts. He reports: “A study published last month by a team of researchers from Columbia University suggests that Reagan and many others were misled by faulty measures of poverty.”
Blinder cites good news about front-line progress in the War on Poverty. “The (Columbia University) report re-examined history using superior measures of poverty that mimic the Census Bureau’s new and improved techniques. It found that, while the traditional measure shows the fraction of people below the poverty line rising by 0.8 percentage points between 1967 and 2002, the new measure of poverty declines by 9.8 points. That’s meaningful progress (The Wall Street Journal, “How Government Wages War on Poverty, Jan. 14, 2014, p. A-15).
Conservatives point to ancient Jewish recognition that “the poor will never cease” in the land, which Jesus reiterated, telling his disciples the poor would always be with them (Deuteronomy 15:11, Mark 14:7). Was Jesus accepting poverty in a laconic way? Or was his intention far from defeatist, challenging Christians to fight against poverty?
When government’s arc bends toward the poor and away from cushioning the rich, the War on Poverty shows significant achievements. The Christian Century magazine in “Safety Net Successes, (Feb. 5, 2014, p. 7) commends “specific programs that began or grew out of the antipoverty efforts of the 1960s. These programs, which detail the War on Poverty’s achievements, include:
The Medicare program for seniors, which (with Social Security) has kept millions of older Americans healthy and out of poverty.
Food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program), which have given families living on little income the ability to stretch their food budgets.
The Medicaid program, which has proved to be a cost-effective way of providing health insurance for low-income Americans and people with disabilities.
The Earned Income Tax Credit, which permits low-income workers to keep more of their pay, shifting the tax burden toward higher earners.”
Few wars achieve complete victory. The War on Poverty fought many foes. It won more victories than it lost.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.
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