War on Poverty day takes place annually on 8 January. The aims of War on Poverty Day are similar to The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty which is celebrated annually on October 17. The date of 8 January was chosen as it is the anniversary of the introduction of The War on Poverty. This was unofficial name for legislation first introduced by United States President Lyndon B. Johnson during his State of the Union address on Wednesday, January 8, 1964. This legislation was proposed In response to a national poverty rate of around nineteen percent and led the United States Congress to pass the Economic Opportunity Act, which established the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to administer the local application of federal funds targeted against poverty.
As a part of the Great Society, Johnson believed in expanding the federal government’s roles in education and health care as poverty reduction strategies. These policies can also be seen as a continuation of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which ran from 1933 to 1937, and the Four Freedoms of 1941. Johnson stated, “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it”.
The Office of Economic Opportunity was the agency responsible for administering most of the War on Poverty programs created during Johnson’s Administration, including VISTA, Job Corps, Head Start, Legal Services and the Community Action Program. The OEO was established in 1964 and quickly became a target of both left-wing and right-wing critics of the War on Poverty. Directors of the OEO included Sargent Shriver, Bertrand Harding, and Donald Rumsfeld.
The OEO launched Project Head Start as an eight-week summer program in 1965. The project was designed to help end poverty by providing preschool children from low-income families with a program that would meet emotional, social, health, nutritional, and psychological needs. Head Start was then transferred to the Office of Child Development in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (later the Department of Health and Human Services) by the Nixon Administration in 1969.
President Johnson also announced a second project to follow children from the Head Start program. This was implemented in 1967 with Project Follow Through, the largest educational experiment ever conducted. The policy trains disadvantaged and at-risk youth and has provided more than 2 million disadvantaged young people with the integrated academic, vocational, and social skills training they need to gain independence and get quality, long-term jobs or further their education. Job Corps continues to help 70,000 youths annually at 122 Job Corps centers throughout the country. Besides vocational training, many Job Corps also offer GED programs as well as high school diplomas and programs to get students into college.
In the decade following the 1964 introduction of the war on poverty, poverty rates in the U.S. dropped to their lowest level since comprehensive records began in 1958: from 17.3% in the year the Economic Opportunity Act was implemented to 11.1% in 1973. They have remained between 11 and 15.2% ever since. Although thr steep decline in poverty rates began in 1959, 5 years before the introduction of the war on poverty
The ‘absolute poverty line’ is the threshold below which families or individuals are considered to be lacking the resources to meet the basic needs for healthy living; having insufficient income to provide the food, shelter and clothing needed to preserve health. Poverty among Americans between ages 18–64 has fallen only marginally since 1966, from 10.5% then to 10.1% today. Poverty has significantly fallen among Americans under 18 years old from 23% in 1964 down to less than 17%, although it has risen again to 20% in 2009. The most dramatic decrease in poverty was among Americans over 65, which fell from 28.5% in 1966 to 10.1% today.
In 2004, more than 35.9 million, or 12% of Americans including 12.1 million children, were considered to be living in poverty with an average growth of almost 1 million per year. According to the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, since the Johnson Administration, almost $15 trillion has been spent on welfare, with poverty rates being about the same as during the Johnson Administration. A 2013 study published by Columbia University asserts that without the social safety net, the poverty rate would have been 29% for 2012, instead of 16%. According to OECD data from 2012, the poverty rate before taxes and transfers was 28.3%, while the poverty rate after taxes and transfers fell to 17.4%. Although The OEO was dismantled by President Nixon in 1973, many of the agency’s programs were transferred to other government agencies.
President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” speech was delivered at a time of recovery (the poverty level had fallen from 22.4% in 1959 to 19% in 1964 when the War on Poverty was announced) and it was viewed by critics as an effort to get the United States Congress to authorize social welfare program. Some economists, including Milton Friedman, have argued that Johnson’s policies actually had a negative impact on the economy because of their interventionist nature, noting in a PBS interview that “the government sets out to eliminate poverty, it has a war on poverty, so-called “poverty” increases. It has a welfare program, and the welfare program leads to an expansion of problems. A general attitude develops that government isn’t a very efficient way of doing things.” Adherents of this school of thought recommend that the best way to fight poverty is not through government spending but through economic growth.
Prof. Tony Judt, the late historian, said in reference to the earlier proposed title of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act that “a more Orwellian title would be hard to conceive” and attributed the decline in the popularity of the Great Society as a policy to its success, as fewer people feared hunger, sickness, and ignorance. Additionally, fewer people were concerned with ensuring a minimum standard for all citizens and social liberalism.
Conservative Research Fellow at the Independent Institute James L. Payne followed this line of thinking when he wrote that “the war on poverty was a costly, tragic mistake because abolishing poverty did not seem far-fetched to the activists and it was a perspective that led to intolerance … The simple economic theory of poverty led to a single underlying principle for welfare programs … In adopting the handout approach for their programs, the war-on-poverty activists failed to notice – or failed to care – that they were ignoring over a century of theory and experience in the social welfare field … The war-on-poverty activists not only ignored the lessons of the past on the subject of handouts; they also ignored their own experience with the poor.”
Economist Thomas Sowell also criticized the War on Poverty’s programs, writing “The black family, which had survived centuries of slavery and discrimination, began rapidly disintegrating in the liberal welfare state that subsidized unwed pregnancy and changed welfare from an emergency rescue to a way of life.
In 1967, Martin Luther King “criticized Johnson’s War on Poverty in his book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? for being too piecemeal, saying that programs created under the “war on poverty” such as “housing programs, job training and family counseling” all had “a fatal disadvantage because the programs have never proceeded on a coordinated basis and noted that at no time has a total, coordinated and fully adequate program been conceived. In his speech on April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church in New City, King connected the war in Vietnam with the “war on poverty”:
The legacy of the War on Poverty policy initiative remains in the continued existence of such federal programs as Head Start, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), TRiO, and Job Corps. Deregulation, growing criticism of the welfare state, and an ideological shift to reducing federal aid to impoverished people in the 1980s and 1990s culminated in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, which President Bill Clinton claimed, “ended welfare as we know it.”