Fifty Years Later, Did The U.S. Win The War On Poverty?

Jan. 8 is the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's War on Poverty. NPR's Linda Wertheimer reflects on whether Johnson succeeded in his goal.

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Fifty years ago this coming week, President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty. Johnson became president after the assassination of President John Kennedy. LBJ mentioned the late president in his State of the Union address only three times,- most notably when he said let us carry forward the plans and programs of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, not because of our sorrow or sympathy, but because they are right.

President Johnson said he wanted every American citizen to be able to fulfill their basic hopes, and too many people in the United States live, he said, on the outskirts of hope. And then he said this administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.

The war President Johnson described was to be fought on many fronts - education, housing, health and jobs. He proposed to take on income inequality and to develop special projects for pockets of poverty in cities and rural America. He warned that this war would take a generation or more.

Did he succeed? Fifty years down the road, there are lots of arguments about that. Some successes are clear. One of the largest groups of people living in poverty in those years were old people. President Johnson, in creating Medicare and opening the way for Medicaid and other programs, changed that. But now, women and their children are one of the largest groups living in poverty. And Head Start and food stamps - programs descended from the war on poverty, programs intended for families - have been cut, recently cut substantially.

To the extent that the war on poverty was also a fight against income inequality, that battle has not succeeded. The gap between the rich and the rest is huge and is opening wider every day. Many Americans eager to work hear that the economy is improving, that the stock market has hit record highs but they don't feel it. They hope they will feel it. But now, they are among those people President Johnson spoke about 50 years ago. They are still living on the outskirts of hope.


WERTHEIMER: You're listening to NPR News.

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