By Imara Jones
Citing the need to replace “despair with opportunity” 50 years ago this week President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty. His effort to roll back severe economic distress, along with a host of other Great Society programs, was the largest push to help Americans on the economic and racial margins since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many of Johnson’s programs were key to creating economic possibility for millions who had never known it, and a whole host of them such as HeadStart, Medicaid, food stamps, and loans for higher education continue to do that. Given the success of the War on Poverty, and with half of all Americans either poor, near poor or at risk of poverty, a vast array of policies to promote economic fairness is needed yet again. But given the image of Johnson’s programs in the public mind, it may be that much harder to achieve them.
The key barrier to embracing the War on Poverty and to building public support for a renewed poverty effort is the fact that right from the start Johnson’s program has been maligned and stereotyped beyond recognition, with race forming a key part of the insult. Given the development of the War on Poverty, that’s no surprise.
Officially enshrined in the Economic Act of 1964, Johnson’s “War on Poverty” was inspired by and based on Bayard Rustin’s Freedom Budget. Rustin put together the Freedom Budget after organizing the 1963 March on Washington. The War on Poverty and the larger Great Society constitute nearly every major economic opportunity, health, education, food security, and housing program in existence today with the exception of Social Security. From the beginning Rustin and Johnson recognized that racial and economic justice go hand-in-hand.
Yet for the past 50 years the ridicule hurled at this essential down payment on economic justice has been incessant and harmful. Johnson’s chief rival for the 1964 presidential race, Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, kicked off the anti-War on Poverty campaign by saying that Johnson’s program was “a gimmick” to “divide Americans” in an election year. It’s carried on since then.
In the 1980s President Ronald Reagan, who’d taken up the conservative mantle of Barry Goldwater, rode to the White House on a promise to reverse the War on Poverty. While at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Reagan often used rhetoric that was racialized to justify his move to curb certain anti-poverty programs and end others. To that end, the 39th president asserted incorrectly that the War on Poverty increased the number of poor, or of “dependency” as he called it, and that it encouraged black women in poverty to have children as teens.
With Reagan’s narrative holding sway, Democratic President Bill Clinton came under pressure in election-year 1996 to “mend not end” Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), commonly known as welfare. The bill he signed effectively cancelled AFDC and welfare as it was known no longer exists.
Read More The War on Poverty vs. Racism – COLORLINES.