‘War on Poverty’ had good intent

Published on Thursday, 9 January 2014 21:40 - Written by

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty began with the best of intentions — and even some proven, reliable strategies. As we take stock of the war, 50 years since its opening salvo, it’s appropriate to note what Johnson got right, even as we examine what later American efforts got wrong.

Johnson began with a challenge to Congress in his State of the Union address in January 1964.

“Let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined; as the session which enacted the most far-reaching tax cut of our time; as the session which declared all-out war on human poverty and unemployment in these United States; as the session which finally recognized the health needs of all our older citizens,” he said.

That important sentence laid out a vision for America that most citizens have come to embrace. Conservatives, liberals and independents alike agree on each of those points: America should be a place where race and religion don’t matter. It should be a place where the poor can find help and hope. It should be a place where senior citizens are cared for.

We’ve all come to accept those as parts of the social contract — the real and relevant reasons we pay taxes and remain engaged in the political process.

Really, we only differ on what those things should look like. Conservatives see a larger role for private charity and free markets, while liberals see a larger role for the government in enforcing equal opportunity and providing care for the poor and elderly.

But what neither side should miss in that speech — the shot across the bow of want and hopelessness — is that LBJ begins with a tax cut. That’s because he believed a robust economy is the best way to ensure all Americans have the opportunity to succeed.

“Above all, we must release $11 billion of tax reduction into the private spending stream to create new jobs and new markets in every area of this land,” LBJ said. “…And every individual American taxpayer and every corporate taxpayer will benefit from the earliest possible passage of the pending tax bill.”

His clearly stated intent was “to create more jobs.” But he recognized that freeing the private sector is the best way to do so. While calling for millions of new jobs, he actually proposed cutting thousands of federal civilian employees from the Department of Defense. LBJ saw the heavy federal employment rolls as a burden on the economy.

Finally, he recognized the inefficiency of a one-size-fits-all approach.

“For the war against poverty will not be won here in Washington,” LBJ said. “It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House.”

In each of these points, President Johnson was absolutely correct. A war on poverty was worth fighting, and had his and later administrations stuck with these strategies, more progress would have been made.

In future editorials, we’ll look at what went wrong.