President John F. Kennedy, speaking in the House chamber in January 1963, with Vice President Lyndon Johnson behind him. Kennedy put poverty on the presidential agenda, but it was Johnson who set the War on Poverty in motion.
  • AP File Photo
  • President John F. Kennedy, speaking in the House chamber in January 1963, with Vice President Lyndon Johnson behind him. Kennedy put poverty on the presidential agenda, but it was Johnson who set the War on Poverty in motion.

Not everyone was singing Lyndon Johnson’s praises after he declared war on poverty 50 years ago this month.

The Tribune deemed Johnson’s State of the Union address, in which he made the declaration, “a refreshing hike on the road to socialism.” The Trib also saw a naked political ploy.

“One is touched by the infinite compassion of politicians for the unfortunate in Presidential election years,” the Trib observed in an editorial titled, “Blessed Are The Poor; They’ll Elect Me”.

The paper went on:

“Assuming that by spreading a bit of poverty among the rich through taxation, you could spread a bit of richness among the poor, who gets the credit? Not the upper brackets that get soaked. That’s not in the plot—the bows and kudos are reserved for the candidate.”

Johnson had become president in November 1963, after John F. Kennedy was slain in Dallas; he faced an election in November 1964. A few days after Johnson’s speech, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican who would oppose him, asserted that the U.S. had fought poverty throughout its history and had largely beaten it, thanks to the free enterprise system. “When we work our way to wealth, we win that war,” Goldwater said. “When government tries to spend its way to wealth, we lose that war.

“Santa Claus dreams or rolled-up sleeves? We have to make a choice!” he told a group of businessmen in New York.

Goldwater also suggested a study be commissioned to determine how much of the problem of poverty was due to “the attitudes or the actions” of the poor themselves.

Conservative pundits likewise said that LBJ should have put the blame for poverty where they felt it belonged. Johnson had faulted inferior social conditions, but “made no mention of weakness in individual character and, in many cases, an inherited incapacity to equal the achievements of one’s average fellow man,” syndicated columnist David Lawrence wrote in the Los Angeles Times.

Republican applause during the State of the Union address was reserved at best, syndicated columnist Doris Fleeson observed in the Boston Globe. But even the Democrats in the audience “were not exactly uproarious over such matters as unconditional war on poverty,” Fleeson noted, and Johnson “frequently had to milk their applause by the well-tried technique of the deliberate pause and hard stare.”

The New York Times called Johnson’s speech “a strong and compassionate statement of the things Congress should and must do to build a better America.” The success of a war on poverty, however, would “depend on the vigor with which this war is pursued, and the resources that are thrown into it,” the Times said.

Was Johnson merely playing for votes, as the Tribune insisted? And if he was, whose votes? Who was more likely to vote for him because he was targeting poverty?

Poverty became a presidential issue in the early 1960s, thanks largely to writer Michael Harrington. In his 1962 book The Other America, Harrington wrote that although the U.S. was a land of plenty for most, a fifth of the nation was still poor—and some of the poor were desperately so. A long essay about the book, by renowned social critic Dwight MacDonald, ran in the New Yorker in January 1963. Kennedy read the essay, and that spring told aides he wanted to do something about poverty.

An Occupy Wall Street protester in New Yorks Zucotti Park in September 2011
  • David Shankbone
  • An Occupy Wall Street protester in New York’s Zucotti Park in September 2011

By that November, however, the idea was still only that: Kennedy had done little to nudge it along. On November 13, 1963, at the first planning session for Kennedy’s reelection campaign, the president told his advisers he wanted to launch an attack on poverty during his campaign. According to Richard Reeves’s President Kennedy: Profile of Power, Kennedy said in this meeting that he wanted to schedule photo opportunities with Negroes in poor city neighborhoods and white miners in Kentucky.

One of the advisers, Census Bureau director Richard Scammon, urged him not to focus on poverty. “You can’t get a single vote more by doing anything for poor people,” Scammon told Kennedy. “Those who vote are already for you.” Scammon advised the president to concentrate instead on issues that appealed to middle-class suburbanites.

Nine days later, Kennedy was dead.

Scammon’s view—that nothing could be gained electorally by helping the poor—applied less to Johnson. Liberals suspected LBJ wasn’t one of them, and Johnson wanted to prove them wrong.

Politics undoubtedly were partly why LBJ decided to mount a war on poverty, Robert A. Caro writes in The Passage of Power, the fourth volume in his acclaimed biography of Johnson. But Caro believes Johnson was also motivated by memories of his own childhood on a humble Texas ranch. Unlike Kennedy, LBJ had personally felt poverty’s sting.

The day after Kennedy was assassinated, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Walter Heller, met with Johnson. Heller mentioned the poverty issue. As Caro recounts in his book, Johnson’s immediate reaction was, “That’s my kind of program.”

In the seven weeks between Kennedy’s assassination and Johnson’s State of the Union address, Johnson seized the momentum from JFK’s death and used it not only to position landmark civil rights measures for passage, Caro writes, but also to launch what he hoped would be “a vast, revolutionary, transformation of America”—the War on Poverty.

That effort led to the creation or expansion of key social programs—Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, Head Start, Social Security—that have reduced the nation’s poverty rate. From the beginning, relatively little was spent on eradicating poverty in urban areas, and those funds grew even smaller as Johnson and the nation became increasingly entangled with the Vietnam War. In metro areas, as I wrote this week, the crucial problem of segregation went unaddressed, and remains so.

Still, as Caro observes in The Passage of Power: “To see Lyndon Johnson take hold of presidential power, and so quickly begin to use it for ends so monumental is to see, with unusual clarity, the immensity of the potential an American President possesses to effect transformative change in the nation he leads.”