War on Poverty

views updated May 23 2018

War on Poverty








The war on poverty of the John F. Kennedy (19171963) and Lyndon B. Johnson (19081973) administrations grew out of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and continued from 1964 to 1981. It had antecedents, beginning with the 1941 state of the union address of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (18821945), in which he enunciated freedom from want as one of four fundamental human rights. This pronouncement was taken as a program by Governor W. Averill Harriman (18911986) in New York state from 1954 to 1958.

A more direct antecedent had developed in New York City in 1946 at the Lafargue Psychiatric Clinic at the Saint Philips Episcopal Church in Harlem, where Shelton Hale Bishop (18891962) served as rector. The clinic was named for Paul Lafargue (18421911), a medical doctor and the son-in-law of Karl Marx (18181883). Its director was psychiatrist Frederic Wertham (18951981). Thurgood Marshall (19081993) and Kenneth B. Clark (19142005) were members of this church. Wertham, Marshall, and Clark collaborated to help the NAACP win the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which outlawed segregation in public schools.


Three years later, an organization called Mobilization for Youth was incorporated on the Lower East Side of New York City by the Henry Street Settlement House with the collaboration of the Columbia University School of Social Work. In 1959 the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), which had just received increased allocations from Congress, provided a two-year planning grant, and Columbia sociologists Richard A. Cloward (19262001) and Lloyd Ohlin were retained as consultants. Cloward and Ohlin had developed an extension of Durkheim-Merton alienation/anomie opportunity theory in sociology, and in 1960 they published Delinquency and Opportunity, in which they argued that delinquents behaved in unapproved ways precisely because they had accepted approved social goals but found no socially approved means by which they could attain those goals, and so resorted to unapproved means. To motivate delinquents to adopt not only the goals but the approved means, opportunity must be provided. In support of this idea, Leonard S. Cottrell Jr. (18991985) of the Russell Sage Foundation testified on March 10, 1960, before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee that delinquency was not so much a matter of curing sick individuals but of curing sick communities.

Mobilization for Youths final planning report, A Proposal for the Prevention and Control of Delinquency by Expanding Opportunity, was presented December 9, 1961, and was submitted to the NIMH for funding. The NIMH, the Presidents Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime (PCJDYC), the U.S. Department of Labor and other federal agencies, the New York City government, and the Ford Foundation subsequently funded Mobilization for Youth for $12.5 million for three more years. In April 1962 Mobilization for Youth submitted Youth in the Ghetto: A Study of the Consequences of Powerlessness and a Blueprint for Change to the PCJDYC review committee, headed by Cottrell. This committee recommended that one million dollars be granted to the program. The city of New York, under Mayor Robert Wagner (19101991), then allocated $3.5 million from its antipoverty funds. The Department of Labor under the Manpower Development and Training Act granted another half million dollars for job training aspects of the program. The initial directors were Cloward and George A. Brager (d. 2003).

In his first race for the office of New York City mayor in 1977, Edward Koch coined the terms poverty pimp and povertician to refer to Raymon Velez of the South Bronx. Velez, born in Puerto Rico in 1930, had developed beginning in 1968 a network of organizations in the South Bronx funded by the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). He had earned a BA in history and political science from Inter-American University of Puerto Rico, after which he became a school teacher. Immigrating to New York, Velez became a social worker. On the basis of his antipoverty network, which provided needed social services and jobs to residents of Puerto Rican neighborhoods, he gained popularity and turned this social and economic success toward politics. Velez became the boss of South Bronx politics, securing the election of many Puerto Ricans to city, state, and federal office. In the 1980s he was elected to the New York City Council, a step downward in his estimation, and served only briefly. This evidently was a slap at Democratic primary opponent, Herman Badillo, whom Velez supported. The rise of Puerto Rican political power in the South Bronx was attained at the expense of Jewish politicians who previously had controlled the area. Changing demographics accounted for the transition.


In the presidential election campaign of 1960, John F. Kennedy promised a war against poverty and degradation and an economic drive on poverty to address the high and persistent unemployment of the 19571958 and 19591960 recessions. His thought on this issue was based largely on John Kenneth Galbraiths (19082006) The Affluent Society (1958), especially chapter 23, The New Position on Poverty. Upon Kennedys election, the presidents Council of Economic Advisors and the Budget Bureau immediately advocated a tax cut, accompanied by an increase in spending as a Keynesian economic remedy for the recession. The result would be a deliberate increase in the federal deficit. This was an attempt to establish Keynesian economic theory as a viable basis for government economic policy. The president accepted this advice.

The particular cabinet departments and programs involved in the spending increases and tax cuts were determined in other ways. In March 1961 Kennedy called a Presidents Conference on Juvenile Delinquency, chaired by his brother Robert F. Kennedy (19251968), the new attorney general. Based upon the recommendations of the March conference, the PCJDYC was established on May 11, 1961. The PCJDYC was to finance projects seeking a solution to juvenile delinquency. Robert Kennedy selected his friend David Hackett as executive director.

In September 1961 Congress passed the Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Offenses Act, which authorized demonstration and training programs in finding the most effective ways of using total resources to combat juvenile delinquency in local communities. It authorized an expenditure of $10 million over three years for the program. In 1962 the committee gave planning grants to agencies in sixteen cities. The act also funded Mobilization for Youth in late 1961 to develop a plan of action to curb juvenile delinquency on New Yorks Lower East Side. Cloward then lent his principal assistant, sociologist James A. Jones (19321992), to Kenneth Clark to design a similar program for Harlem. Clark and Jones in 1962 established Harlem Youth Unlimited Inc. (HARYOU), of which Jones became research director. Harlem Congressman Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (19081972), the new chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, formed a rival Harlem organization, Associated Community Teams (ACT). He then insisted that HARYOU be merged with ACT, and when this was accomplished, Clark resigned. He was replaced by ACT executive director Livingston Wingate (19161995), Powells assistant.

In December 1962 President Kennedy asked his Council of Economic Advisors chairman, Walter W. Heller (19151987), to pull together all available information on the poverty issue. Heller assigned this task to council member Robert J. Lampman (19201997). He and Heller suggested that Kennedy read socialist Michael Harringtons (19281989) The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962), along with Leon Keyserlings (19081987) Poverty and Depression in the United States (1962). Harrington was considered a responsible radical, because he was a follower of former Trotskist Max Schactman, whose tactic was to bore from within. This meant that instead of running Socialist Party candidates for elective office, the party would support Democratic Party candidates. Harrington, thus, had been a wellknown worker for left and liberal organizations and journals throughout the 1950s. In July 1959, he wrote an article on poverty for Commentary Magazine, and it was from this article that the book The Other America grew. In an approving commentary of Galbraiths book The Affluent Society (1958), he noted the existence of 50 million impoverished people in the United States, about one quarter of the total population. Poverty persisted from generation to generation, helped by what Oscar Lewis called a culture of poverty, a non-Marxist idea. It was precisely this idea that recommended him to the Kennedy administration, because it undercut left leadership of the anti-poverty struggle. Harringtons entire body of work thus led to an eager anticipation of the book, and accounted for the wide extent of its positive reception. That he had worked for Catholic organizations did not hurt his acceptance by the president, even though he had lapsed from the faith by then. After Lampman reported that the U.S. poverty rate was increasing, Kennedy directed Heller to include a war on poverty in the 1964 White House legislative package for Congress.

On the day after Kennedys November 22, 1963, assassination in Dallas, Heller met with President Johnson and suggested to him that a war against poverty might be a good way to begin his presidency. Johnson agreed. In his 1964 state of the union address, titled The War on Poverty, he called on Congress to enact a package of measures embodying programs that would eliminate poverty in our lifetimes. On February 1, 1964, Johnson appointed Kennedys brother-in-law and Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver to head a Task Force on Poverty.


David Hackett and Richard Boone of PCJDYC suggested that their community action model should be the vehicle for this war on poverty. Other departments proposed programs over which they had jurisdiction. At this point, the Budget Bureau, headed by economists Kermit Gordon (19161976) and Charles L. Schultze, became involved. Budget Bureau staff member William B. Cannon wrote a memorandum suggesting that the community action program begin with ten demonstration areas across the country, and that a development corporation be established in each. Schultze suggested similarly that poverty funds be allocated to pockets of poverty, rather than uniformly across the country. He also suggested using the term action program, from Cannons memo, rather than development corporation. Someone added community to action program, and the community action title of the proposed legislation was born. The task force developed the plans for an organization to conduct the war on poverty, and submitted them to the president on March 15, 1964; he then disbanded the group. The next day, on the basis of the task force report, Johnson delivered a message to Congress calling upon it to enact legislation creating such an agency. He stated that the program would not consist of top-down planning from Washington, but would involve the talents of people from all over the country, at every level of society. He also called for the establishment of an office of equal opportunity. In testimony before Congress in 1964, Shriver listed 137 people who had participated in writing the legislation. On August 29, 1964, Congress passed, and Johnson signed into law, the Equal Opportunity Act of 1964. The act created the OEO, and on August 30, 1964, Congress gave the OEO $947.7 million for ten programs.

The OEO was initially lodged in the Office of the President, but subsequently became an independent agency. Shriver was named director of the OEO and served until 1968. Economist and AFL-CIO lobbyist Hyman H. Bookbinder, a member of Shrivers 1964 task force, became associate director.

The Equal Opportunity Act also created an OEO Advisory Committee of fourteen, which was appointed by President Johnson on January 29, 1965. Perhaps the most important arm of the OEO administrative structure, although it had no program responsibilities, was the Office of Research, Plans, Programs, and Evaluation, which might be called the war room of the war on poverty. Here were placed those economists who had actual experience in administering economic planning. The first director of this office was Joseph A. Kershaw (19131978), who served from 1964 to 1966. He was succeeded by Robert A. Levine (1966), Robinson G. Hollister (19661968), and Walter Williams (1968 1969). Levine attempted to establish a five-year plan to end poverty that proposed a national negative income tax program to replace Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). The OEO funded the New Jersey Negative Income Tax demonstration project to estimate the cost of the program.

The war on poverty required for its success a definition of poverty and a means of measuring it. In March 1965, Kershaw and the Office of Research, Plans, Programs, and Evaluation used the work of economist Mollie Orshansky of the Social Security Administration to establish such a definition. Two months later, the OEO officially adopted the Orshansky poverty thresholds as a working definition of poverty.

The unique feature of the Equal Opportunity Act was Title II: the Rural and Urban Community Action Program. The OEO divided the country into seven to ten regions, each with a regional director. Fieldworkers in the Washington headquarters traveled to regions to help establish and monitor the operation of community action agencies located in the major cities of each region. In addition, the OEO funded national organizations to facilitate theoretical and empirical research on the issue of poverty. Chief among these were the Harvard-MIT Joint Center for Urban Studies, the National Association for Community Economic Development, the Institute for Research on Poverty, the Urban Institute, the Center for Community Economic Development, and the National Rural Center.


The Institute for Research on Poverty was established at the University of Wisconsin by Lampman, who was considered the leading expert on the economics of poverty. Its first director was Harold W. Watts (19661971). By 1985, with the OEO no longer in existence, oversight of the Institute for Research on Poverty had shifted to the assistant secretary of Health and Human Services for Planning and Evaluation. By 1996 the institute was no longer the national poverty center, but only one among several area poverty centers. The Center for Community Economic Development in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was codirected in 1971 by Geoffrey P. Faux, who had been director of the OEO Economic Development Division from 1967 to 1970. The National Rural Center was established in 1975, with F. Ray Marshall as president and director. When President Jimmy Carter named Marshall his secretary of labor in 1977, John M. Cornman replaced him.

Half of the OEOs community action program funds went to prepackaged national programs such as Head Start. The other half went to local initiative programs developed by the community action agencies themselves.

New York City, where the theory and operational model for the war on poverty had been developed, now received feedback from the federal government. In 1962 Mayor Wagner had created a Council on Poverty and an Anti-poverty Operations Board. Surgeon Arthur C. Logan (19091973) was the first chairman of the community action program under Wagner. Wagner was defeated in 1965 by former congressman John V. Lindsay (1921 2000), who in 1966 established a Mayors Task Force on Poverty, headed by Mitchell Sviridoff (19182000). The task force recommended the establishment of a superagency comprised of all agencies having any responsibility for providing services to the poor. On September 15, 1966, Lindsay established the Human Resources Administration, which included the Community Development Agency and the Manpower and Career Development Agency, among other agencies. The Community Development Agency was designated the New York City community action agency under the OEO. Sviridoff served as head of the Human Resources Administration from 1966 to 1967.

New Yorks Community Development Agency was headed by George Nicolau from 1966 to 1967. He was replaced by Major Owens in 1968, and Owens served until 1973. In 1968 the agency wrote a grant proposal to NIMH for a Brownsville Community Council economic advocacy planning project. The NIMH funded the proposal, its first grant to a community action agency to conduct economic advocacy planning, and the Brownsville Advocacy Planning Agency was born. The agencys staff included graduate students in economics from Yale and Columbia universities.

A participant in the 1949 founding of the NIMH, and a member of its advisory board at the time of this grant, was Eli Ginzberg (19112002), director of the Conservation of Human Resources Project of Columbia Business School. His staff at Columbia in 1956 consisted of two economists and four psychologists and social psychologists. The grant to the Brownsville Community Council was a departure, as advocacy planning was developed largely by architects and city planners. Columbias School of Architecture, for example, was responsible for the creation of the Architects Renovation Committee of Harlem and the East Harlem Studio of the Real Great Society Uptown. In the 1950s the NIMH had established a unit to finance outside research. In response to Johnsons war on poverty, the NIMH established centers for minority group and urban mental health problems. It was the conjuncture of these institutions and forces that enabled the grant to the Brownsville Community Council in 1968.

Robert Kennedy resigned as attorney general and was elected senator from New York in 1964. In 1966 he and Jacob Javits (19041986), the senior senator from New York, introduced the Kennedy-Javits Amendment to the Equal Opportunity Act, creating a new Title I-D, the special impact program (SIP). This title caused a shift in the OEO toward community-controlled business development through community development corporations. The community development corporations were designed as community holding companies or community trusts. To administer the new program, the OEO established the Economic Development Division, under which the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation in Brooklyn, New York, and the Hough Area Development Corporation in Cleveland, Ohio, were funded in 1966 as the first two community development corporations in the nation.

In 1967 the Edith Green Amendment placed a ceiling of 33 percent for representatives of the poor on a citys community action agency. In the meantime, Kenneth Clark in 1967 founded the Metropolitan Applied Research Center and served as president until 1975. The Metropolitan Applied Research Center received a grant of $190,000 from the Field Foundation. In 1970 the center and Howard University, with an $860,000 Ford Foundation grant, established the Joint Center for Political Studies in Washington, D.C., with Howard law professor Frank D. Reeves (19161973) as director.

From 1968 to 1969, New Yorks community action program guidelines made advocacy planning the highest project-funding priority, leading to the funding of the Pratt Institutes Center for Community Development; Harlem Commonwealth Councils (HCC) Commonwealth Holding Company, Inc., a subsidiary, with the Black Economic Research Center in Harlem as a major consultant; and the Brownsville Advocacy Planning Agency. These organizations were intended to provide economic expertise and advocacy for their respective communities in dealing with the City Planning Commission and other relevant city, state, and federal agencies in developing and locating commercial, industrial, and service enterprises.

The Ford Foundation, a major partner of the federal and city governments in the war on poverty, provided grants for advocacy planning to the Black Economic Research Center from 1968 through 1980. The center developed the theory that the major economic problem of black Americans was not labor market inequality but capital market inequality, which included access to the major stock and commodity exchanges, as well as to the Treasury Department, which represented capital interests, on a communal basis. Current capital reallocation was necessary, and the first stage of such a transfer was social capital, including infrastructure, and educational facilities with financing for operations.

Current income redistribution was also deemed necessary, along with future nondiscrimination in markets to maintain the gains achieved. These developments were a direct confrontation of the theory upon which the war on poverty was basedthat a change of unmeasurable internal states of being could result in a measurable diminution of poverty in a finite and short period. It also confronted the theories of economists Gary S. Becker, Theodore Schultz (19021998), and Milton Friedman (19122006), which defined lifetime earnings as capital stock, human capital, and focused on future income distribution and not current income redistribution. This polemic was one of the sources for the development of the reparations argument in the black community. Reparations as a large lump sum would enable the purchase of capital assets by the residents of black communities, and avoid the necessity for politically impossible capital expropriation. This concept, which had been a tenet of black nationalist doctrine since the 1920s, began to gain academic and social respectability at the Black Economic Development Conference in Detroit in 1969.


The election of Richard M. Nixon (19131994) as president in 1968 heralded the demise of the OEO and the war on poverty. In April 1969, Donald H. Rumsfeld was appointed OEO director with the charge to dismantle the agency. He selected Richard B. Cheney as his assistant. Howard Phillips was appointed as OEO director in 1973 to succeed Rumsfeld. However, court decisions forced the administration to expend the funds appropriated, because the Equal Opportunity Act had a ten-year life by law. In 1970 amendments to the Equal Opportunity Act created SIP Title VII. Title VII funds went to, among other entities, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which created surplus-earning entities in rural areas of southern states. OEO programs were transferred to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and to the Department of Labor. By the time Nixon resigned on August 8, 1974, the war on poverty was essentially over.

The coup de grâce occurred from 1974 to 1976 during the Gerald R. Ford (19132006) administration. Funding for OEO programs could now be legally cut, and the OEO was actually abolished by the Headstart, Economic Opportunity, and Community Partnership Act of January 4, 1975, which created the Community Services Administration (CSA), the name suggesting a retreat from community action by citizens to government provision of services to citizens in communities. For the horizontal relationships among equal citizens uniting to achieve a commonly determined purpose at the neighborhood level was substituted the old vertically hierarchical relationship between the rulers and the ruled.

From 1977 to 1981 the Carter administration attempted to resurrect the war on poverty by increasing funding for the CSA and enacting legislation expanding the SIP emphasis. Chief among the new institutions established by Congress was the National Consumer Cooperative Bank, signed into law in 1978 and opened for business in 1980, and the Rural Development Loan Fund, established in 1981. Both had boards of directors consisting of representatives elected by residents of low-income communities. The National Consumer Cooperative Bank made federally subsidized below-market-rate loans to consumer and producer cooperatives in largely urban areas. From the Community Economic Development Act of 1981, the Rural Development Loan Fund was to consist of all remaining funds from Part A of Title III of the Equal Opportunity Act and the funds from Title VII community development credit unions. It was located in the CSA, and provided one-percent interest rate loans for rural business purposes.

The OEO, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Ford Foundation had earlier financed the development of the idea for these financial institutions. Edward K. Hamilton and Belden Hull were hired as consultants by the National Rural Center and the Opportunity Funding Corporation (established in 1970) to design the bank as an experiment in development finance. The Opportunity Funding Corporation was an OEO demonstration project in community capital development, led by John Gloster, a former Atlanta insurance executive. The National Rural Center invited experts from Europe, Canada, and the United States to a conference at the University of Wisconsin to provide ideas on a design. The final design drew upon the Treasury Departments new Federal Financing Bank, established in 1973. This design was negotiated largely at the Treasury Department with an interagency task force appointed by President Carter.

With Carters defeat by Ronald Reagan (19112004) after one term, however, the fate of the war on poverty was sealed. The Equal Opportunity Act was repealed on October 1, 1981. The Community Development Block Grant was established in 1981, ensuring that federal funds would not go directly to neighborhoods but would be filtered through established political groups at the state and municipal levels. Then CSA was abolished, although the Rural Development Loan Fund was allowed to remain.

Despite these developments, the national advocacy groups for community development corporations continued the battle against poverty, financed as before the war on poverty by religious organizations, universities, private foundations, and unsystematically by federal, state, and local government. The war on poverty had degenerated from a massed frontal assault into a guerrilla war. In addition, the surpluses generated from the operation of community development corporations and cooperatives were plowed back into operations to help finance operations and expand capital equipment. And the national financial institutions still existed. As of 2005, at least 80 percent of counties in the United States still had community action agencies or community development corporations.


The war on poverty involved socially well-placed individuals using social science ideas to create new institutions in low-income communities, and at the national level to assist these local institutions. These individuals and institutions then engaged in actions that created historic events. The social science ideas reflected Keynesian economic theory, as well as opportunity theory in sociology and social psychology, and the political science theory of urban politics that maintained that urban neighborhood communities should be self-governing, independent political entities.

The new institutions created were, at the first level, community social service agencies in poor communities. The organizations responsible for these creations were private religious organizations, universities, and foundations. Using these community organizations as models, the federal, state, and local governments transformed their structures to replicate those of the private social service agencies for these functions, and wrote these changes into law. These practices thereby became obligatory for the nation as a whole and, importantly, became familiar to the large portion of the electorate who were neither poor nor involved in service to the poor.

SEE ALSO Culture of Poverty; Great Society, The; Johnson, Lyndon B.; New Deal, The; Poverty; Poverty, Indices of; Roosevelt, Franklin D.; Welfare State


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War on Poverty

views updated May 08 2018


WAR ON POVERTY. Stemming from a decision made in November 1963 to pursue a legislative agenda that economic advisers to President John F. Kennedy had planned, the War on Poverty consisted of a series of programs in the areas of health, education, and welfare that Congress passed in 1964 and 1965. When President Lyndon Johnson declared an "unconditional war on poverty" in his 1964 State of the Union address, he referred to federal aid to education and medical care for the elderly as important parts of that war. Although these measures passed in 1965, an omnibus act, prepared by a special task force of President Johnson's Council of Economic Advisers, became the legislative vehicle most closely associated with the War on Poverty. The House Education and Labor Committee began to consider this legislation, known as the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA), in April 1964, and the measure passed Congress that August.

The Office of Economic Opportunity

Run as part of the Executive Office of the president and directed by Sargent Shriver, a brother-in-law of President Kennedy, the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) served as the bureaucratic center for the war. Shriver's Office of Economic Opportunity contained assistant directors for each of the three most important components of the Economic Opportunity Act. The Job Corps, the first of these components, based on New Deal models such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, recruited 10,000 people by 30 June 1965 to receive vocational training in urban training centers, frequently located on abandoned military bases, or in smaller conservation camps managed by the Agriculture and Interior departments. The conservation camps stressed the value of discipline and physical labor in rural settings such as forests and recreational areas.

By the end of 1966, the Job Corps encountered serious opposition in Congress. Training inner-city youths for meaningful jobs turned out to be an expensive and difficult task. The fact that some Job Corps trainees committed crimes and that a riot erupted at one Job Corps training center added to the negative publicity. Nonetheless, the program survived as a public-private partnership run by the Department of Labor. Between 1966 and 2000, the program served more than 1.9 million disadvantaged young people.

The Community Action Program, the second of the important components of the Office of Economic Opportunity, functioned as a grant program from the federal government to local Community Action Agencies. These local agencies, either private or governmental organizations, had the assignment of mobilizing the resources of a given area and using them to plan and coordinate an attack on the causes of poverty. Part of their mission was to involve local residents in the decision making process. After urban riots in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts in the summer of 1965, Congress began to question the efficacy of the Community Action Program. President Johnson also began to distance himself from the program, particularly after receiving complaints from local politicians that local Community Action Agencies were operating as centers to organize political movements in opposition to the incumbent mayors and city council members. In 1967, Representative Edith Green (D-Oregon) helped to save the Community Action Program by offering a successful amendment that placed all of the more than 1,000 community action agencies under the control of local or state governments.

Although the Community Action Agencies were intended to function as local laboratories for reform, the OEO fostered "national emphasis" programs, designed to be adopted across the country. The most influential of these programs was Head Start, launched in the summer of 1965. Head Start grew into a permanent program with its own funding stream and provided education, health, and nutritional services to more than 18 million low-income preschool children. Begun as a six-week summer program with a budget of $96 million, Head Start became a nine-month school-year program with an allocation of nearly $5.3 billion in fiscal year 2000.

Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), the third important part of the OEO, resembled the Peace Corps that had been established in the Kennedy administration and, like the War on Poverty, headed by Sargent Shriver. The program allowed the federal government to recruit, train, and fund volunteers who would spend a year living among the poor and working on antipoverty projects in both urban and rural areas. By June 1968, 5,000 VISTA volunteers were in the field, working on 447 projects in every state except Mississippi. As with Head Start and the Job Corps, this program survived, so that between 1965 and the end of the century some 120,000 Americans performed national service as VISTA volunteers.

Other War on Poverty Components

Beyond these three core programs run by the OEO, the Department of Labor administered the Neighborhood Youth Corps, authorized by the Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) of 1964 and designed to keep needy students in school by offering them such incentives as a stipend, work experience, and "attitudinal" training. Another part of the War on Poverty, run by the Department of Agriculture, provided for loans to low-income farm families for business initiatives and attempted to improve the living conditions of migrant farm workers. Still other components of the EOA were designed to mesh with the rehabilitation services offered to welfare beneficiaries and authorized by the 1962 Public Welfare Amendments.

The most important and effective measures of the War on Poverty, not included in the EOA, provided federal funds for the education of children in low-income families (Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965) and for the medical care of elderly individuals and individuals on welfare (Medicare and Medicaid, created by the Social Security Amendments of 1965). These programs, the outgrowth of legislative battles that had raged throughout the 1950s, enjoyed more support in Congress and received far more funding than did the programs authorized by the Economic Opportunity Act. Significant expansions of the Social Security program in 1968 and 1969 worked far more effectively to lower the poverty rate among the nation's elderly than did all of the components of the Economic Opportunity Act combined.

Even by 1966, it became apparent that legislators in Congress favored certain programs, such as Head Start, over other antipoverty programs, such as the Community Action Program. As a consequence, Congress earmarked funds for Head Start at the expense of Community Action and the Job Corps. During the second Nixon administration, Congress replaced the Office of Economic Opportunity with the Community Services Administration and hastened the process in which favored parts of the antipoverty program were exported to established executive agencies, such as the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. In 1981 the Reagan administration abolished the Community Services Administration, leaving only individual programs such as legal services and Head Start as the bureaucratic survivors of the War on Poverty.

Three years later, Charles Murray, an analyst in a conservative think tank, published Losing Ground, in which he argued that the antipoverty programs of the 1960s ended up increasing the rate of poverty, rather than eradicating poverty. Murray's book precipitated a national debate over the efficacy of the War on Poverty and Great Society programs at a time when the Reagan administration made concerted efforts to cut government spending for social welfare purposes. President Ronald Reagan himself distinguished between the programs of the New Deal, which he deemed effective, and the programs of the Great Society that featured a War on Poverty in which, according to Reagan, poverty won.

The creators of the War on Poverty had hoped to create a flexible approach that would allow local communities to experiment with what worked best. Although such an approach failed to materialize, the Office of Economic Opportunity sponsored important research into the causes of poverty and the best means of alleviating it. The economists in the Division of Research, Planning and Evaluation viewed the poverty legislation as an avenue for policy evaluation and research. Hence, it seemed natural to them to test the notion of a guaranteed income that would be paid both to the working and the nonworking poor, to families headed by women, and to "intact" families that contained both a father and a mother living at home. In a remarkable development, the economists secured approval to conduct one of the largest social experiments in the nation's history, undertaken in the late 1960s and 1970s and known as the Negative Income Tax Experiments. These experiments yielded valuable data on the effects of social programs on people's behavior and in particular on how the receipt of income from the government affected labor supply and such crucial life decisions as whether to marry.

The War on Poverty, then, failed to end poverty and raised questions about the federal government's ability to provide effective social services. At the same time, it spawned several programs, notably Head Start, that have withstood the test of time and been evaluated as an effective means of improving educational performance. Furthermore, the era of the War on Poverty witnessed the passage of programs such as Medicare that have become enduring parts of American life and improved the access of Americans to health care and other vital services.


Berkowitz, Edward. America's Welfare State: From Roosevelt to Reagan. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.

Gillette, Michael L. Launching the War on Poverty: An Oral History. New York: Twayne, 1996.

Murray, Charles. Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980. New York: Basic Books, 1984.

O'Connor, Alice. Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Edward D.Berkowitz

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