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The Changing Faces of Poverty and Inequality: How We Once Came to Fight a War on Poverty

The fifty-year anniversary of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s declaration of a war on poverty has sparked a new round of right-wing attacks on social policies for the poor. The arguments are familiar. Ronald Reagan set the tone with the quip “we fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.” Now it was people like Paul Ryan who led the chorus, loudly claiming that despite trillions of dollars spent, and hundreds of programs, 47 million Americans remained poor. The problem, according to these critics, is that we relied on government, especially the federal government, to fight the war.  What we should have done then, and should do now, is slash taxes and roll back regulations so as to free business to solve the problem by expanding employment. Or government should pay businesses to run poverty programs. Ryan points approvingly, for example, to an initiative of Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, to make government grants available to employers to develop job-training programs. These are not new ideas and they are not mere rhetoric either. In fact, an increasing number of government functions, including welfare and welfare-to-work programs, prisons, and public schools, have been contracted out to for-profit agencies on the grounds that where government inevitably fails, business can get the job done.

It is not just conservatives who bash the war on poverty. Many commentators on the left are not ready to celebrate the anniversary either.  Not only is poverty still with us, and in fact growing, but a good number of left critics think War on Poverty programs were at least partly to blame. Too much of the war was directed to trying to change the people who were poor, teaching or preaching to them to change their attitudes and behaviors regarding work and school and childbearing. Too little had been directed toward the economic conditions these people faced, especially unemployment and low wages.

There’s a measure of truth in this last point. Inevitably, much of what was done was shaped by what had been done before, by social workers or educators or job trainers, for example. Nevertheless, I think the war on poverty deserves more appreciation. We need to separate the effects of the poverty programs from the impact of the detrimental changes in the economy associated with the hyper-capitalism we call neoliberalism. To be sure, the economic changes of the past few decades were influenced by government policies, including regulatory, trade, and tax policies. But the programs of the War on Poverty were not the culprits.  And once we parse the programs’ effects, it becomes clear that the war on poverty actually scored big gains for the poor, especially for poor children and the elderly. Moreover, the programs helped shrink racial disparities in poverty.

The war on poverty scored big gains for the poor [and] helped shrink racial disparities in poverty.

When Paul Ryan says millions of Americans are still poor he is correct. He might have added that the U.S. has proportionally more poor people than any other rich nation. But the programs worked to offset the increases in economic hardship created by the falling wages and more precarious employment of a growing proportion of working people.  And this large trend reflected the decline of unions, deindustrialization, the growth of low-wage and contingent service sector employment, and the increasing aggressiveness of employers in their race to the bottom. The initiatives of the war on poverty offset some of the impact of these developments. Without the war, things would be much worse for many millions of people.

Moreover, when War on Poverty programs were inaugurated in the early 1960s, the benefits they provided were funded by a relatively progressive tax system. And the urban protests to which the war was a response, but which it also encouraged, prodded other programs (like Aid to Families with Dependent Children) to become more responsive and more lawful.  Those benefits were also largely funded by relatively progressive federal taxes.  So even though the war provoked animosity from white working people, they were not bearing the main brunt of the cost.  By contrast, the contemporary Earned Income Tax Credit program helps to bolster the income of low-wage workers with government subsidies.  In 2013, a family of four with a household wage income of $25,000 would be entitled to a tax credit of $4,918.  But unlike the 1960s when social programs were funded by a steeply progressive tax system – the top marginal tax rate was 91 percent – the revenues that subsidize low-wage earners now come mainly from the taxes paid by working- and middle-class people.[i]

Unlike the 1960s, when programs were funded by a progressive tax system, the revenues that subsidize low-wage earners now come mainly from taxes paid by working-and middle-class people.

So as government policies go, the war on poverty was overall a good war.  At this moment, surrounded as we are by timid Democrats and rapacious or simply lunatic Republicans, we should try to stretch our memories and understand how the American government was made to take such initiatives. Why did Lyndon Baines Johnson, a president whose political acumen and chicanery were legendary, come to make the War on Poverty the main theme of his 1964 State of the Union address?  And how was it that he then succeeded in pushing Congress to enact a series of policies that reduced poverty in the United States, and did so with programs for which the affluent paid?

Black Migration Alters the Electoral Landscape

Policies are not simply the contrivances of policy wonks.  They are the outcome of politics, and underlying the war on poverty were severe disturbances in urban and national politics with which a Democratic federal regime tried to cope.  These disturbances in turn reflected big economic and demographic changes that originated in the mechanization of southern agriculture and the consequent displacement and immiseration of millions of blacks who had been sharecroppers, tenant farmers, or day laborers.  Many made their way to the big cities of the north, where earlier black migrants had established small ghetto communities.

Now the ghettos were bulging with newcomers.  In 1910, 75 percent of African-Americans lived in rural areas, and 90 percent lived in the South.  By the mid-1960s, three-quarters lived in cities, and half were outside the South.[ii] These economic and demographic shifts were to have large consequences for American politics, destabilizing electoral alignments, and also creating the conditions which nourished the black emancipatory movements of the 1960s.

The ensuing problems for the Democratic Party were as serious as they were because the party’s electoral success depended on a peculiar and potentially fragile North-South voter coalition. The South had been solidly Democratic since the Civil War, but the Democrats became a reigning majority only when the Great Depression combined with New Deal appeals to draw the northern urban working class into Democratic ranks. During the Depression, the political oligarchs of the still feudal South had welcomed the assistance that New Deal programs provided to their hard-hit region.  But they were also wary of the possibility of federal interference with their caste-based labor system.  For some years, national Democratic leaders worked to assuage their worries and keep the coalition together. That meant a tacit agreement to avoid initiatives that interfered with racial arrangements in the South, and especially to avoid initiatives that would interfere with the caste-based labor system.  FDR refused to support anti-lynching legislation, and important New Deal labor initiatives exempted agricultural and domestic workers, the main black occupations in the South.

The migration of millions of blacks to the cities of the North where they became voters created serious strains both within the Northern wing of the Democratic coalition, and then between the Northern and Southern wings. Historically, the big city Democratic parties had incorporated waves of immigrant newcomers by forming what are called patron-client relations with the leaders of new ethnic communities.  Modest amounts of municipal patronage, much of it symbolic, were extended to the leaders of the new communities who in turn were tasked with producing votes for the usually Democratic ticket. But this time, the process was not working well.

One reason was that intense conflict in the South generated by civil rights protests was not only leading to defections from the Democratic ranks by white Southerners, but producing signs of instability among black voters in the Northern cities as well. Adlai Stevenson, the unsuccessful Democratic contender for the presidency in 1956, had tried to placate the white South by remaining vaguely noncommittal on civil rights. He was punished by a sharp drop in support among black voters in the North, who opted to stay away from the polls in large numbers.  Local Democratic regimes in the cities were not helping either, simply because mayors tied to older white ethnic constituencies failed to reach out to the newcomers.  To make matters worse, racial frictions in the cities grew as the enlarging black populations strained against ghetto boundaries and spilled over into white schools.

When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960 he showed a keen awareness of the need to win black votes.  He took a rhetorically strong stand on civil rights where Stevenson had waffled.  But to act on his platform was to ensure further defections in the South. Other ways to strengthen black allegiance in the North were needed.

A War for Black Political Incorporation

Standing in the way of such allegiance was the faltering process of political incorporation of black newcomers to the cities.  The solution was the inauguration of the series of programs targeted at the “inner city” which became known as the Great Society.  While each of the initiatives carried a different label (labels intended to soften conflict since they named problems everyone could agree upon), in the streets of the ghettos where the programs were implemented they looked very much the same because they were designed to solve the same problem of the political incorporation of blacks in the face of local resistance.

[The programs of the Great Society] were designed to solve the problem of the political incorporation of blacks in the face of local resistance.

The signature program was the Economic Opportunity Act known as the War on Poverty, launched in 1964.  And the centerpiece of the Economic Opportunity Act was known as “community action.”  But the distinctive features of the War on Poverty were evident in a series of initiatives beginning in 1961 with the passage of the Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Offenses Control Act.  In 1963, the Community Mental Health Act authorized more funds for similar programs.  Then in 1964, under Johnson, the much larger still Economic Opportunity Act. And in 1966 the Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act passed.

Each program singled out ghetto neighborhoods, each provided a basket of diverse services, each channeled some part of its funds to new organizations in the ghettos, circumventing not only state agencies but the municipal regimes that had resisted incorporating blacks, and each functioned in ways that looked remarkably similar to the traditional political machine.  Staff helped residents get jobs or deal with recalcitrant municipal agencies whose ties to older white constituencies made them reluctant to provide services to the ghettos.  Local people were hired as community workers, and under the rubric of “community participation” the programs drew in more people from the neighborhoods.  And citywide coordinating bodies were established that generated more jobs, and more opportunities for voice, for the black newcomers that municipal regimes had ignored.

Incorporation vs. Cooptation

I said this was an effort at political incorporation.  Or was it political cooptation?  After all, the black voter instabilities that prompted JFK’s attention to the inner-city were inspired by the demands of the Southern civil rights movement. But once in office, Kennedy stalled, fearing defections in the Southern wing of the party. Later, when escalating civil rights protests did force Kennedy, and then Johnson, to champion the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Southern support crumbled. In the meantime, however, Kennedy tried to hold black voters with social policy initiatives in the Northern cities where the black vote was concentrated. But even as the programs and the rhetoric of the Great Society took shape, the Black Freedom Movement arrived in the North, and protests erupted in the cities over schools, jobs, welfare, housing, and policing.

[The] rising black protest movement became intertwined with policies intended to incorporate or coopt black inner-city communities.

Inevitably, this rising black protest movement became intertwined with policies intended to incorporate or coopt black inner-city communities. Indeed, in many instances the movement and the programs became indistinguishable.  How could it have been otherwise?  The strategy of incorporation relied on providing resources and the rhetorical encouragement of “maximum feasible participation” to the inner-city.

The local storefronts established by the new programs, along with the community workers, social workers, lawyers, and Vista volunteers the programs hired, were influenced and overtaken by the rising aspirations and activism of the movement. The new programs promised independence from established city regimes and a measure of influence for the poor. Or as Robert Kennedy told a House committee in 1964, “The institutions which affect the poor [are] education, welfare, recreation, business, and labor…. The community action programs must basically change these organizations by building into the programs real representation for the poor.” It was not easy to reverse such promises in the face of rising protests in the inner cities. In other words, community action was a lever to prod the big institutions of the American welfare state, many of them controlled by local government, to respond to the minority poor.

I was there, so to speak, and watched the growth of the protest movement first from the perch of Mobilization for Youth (MFY), an early Lower East Side poverty program, and then later from my role in the national welfare rights movement.  These were heady times.  On the Lower East Side, the streets throbbed with crowds of excited people, especially in the summer months.  And the local war on poverty was part of the rush.  In August 1963, MFY rented an entire train so neighborhood residents could join the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington D.C.

Meanwhile, MFY’s neighborhood service centers (staffed by social workers, lawyers, and local residents) were flooded with people who suddenly had the confidence to ask for help dealing with indifferent landlords, school suspensions, unpaid grocery bills, or a resistant welfare department.  The storefront centers multiplied, and other MFY facilities provided meeting and mimeograph machines to local groups.  MFY lawyers passed out cards in the neighborhood encouraging local people to call on their services if they had trouble with welfare or the police or the landlord.  And as they gained experience, MFY staff became more aggressive, cajoling and threatening legal action on behalf of the people they were helping. Service centers like these were established in about a thousand communities across the country, and in a short time they became the locus not only for help with individual grievances but for collective action in rent strikes and welfare rights campaigns.

Neighborhood service centers were flooded with people who suddenly had the confidence to ask for help dealing with indifferent landlords, school suspensions, unpaid grocery bills, or a resistant welfare department.

Community action programs also helped launch blacks into city politics. If, at first, the programs provided resources and encouragement for activists, in the longer run these activists became executives of community action or model cities programs, vying for position and patronage in big city politics. And in some places, the Great Society programs became the base for blacks seeking local electoral office.  In Newark, for example, Kenneth Gibson, who had been the vice president of the local community action program, won the mayoralty.  In Boston, the model cities director claimed credit for electing a city councilman. In Durham, North Carolina the community action agency joined with liberals in a successful takeover of the county Democratic Party.

Community action programs helped launched blacks into city politics.

I have already said that War on Poverty programs and their ramified effects had a big impact on poverty.  They also should be deemed a success as a strategy of incorporation or cooptation.  Black voters became reliable Democrats. But to dismiss the war as mere cooptation is too simple by far.  The policy gains were, in effect, the price paid by a Democratic regime for the cooptation of blacks.  Moreover, eventually, as the processes of incorporation continued, the price came to include substantial minority employment in the public sector as well.

We should recover our own memory of the War on Poverty and not allow it to be defined and buried by right-wing politicians. Just think, not very long ago, the machinations of elected politicians converged with a great freedom movement from the bottom to produce extraordinary feats of political creativity and transformation.

Today, many of the poor are the low-wage and insecure workers of the so-called precariat.  The lesson for them and their advocates of the War on Poverty is that important gains are unlikely to result from electoral politics alone.  In the 1960s, it was the rising of a people in a disorderly and even riotous movement, at a time when Democratic political leaders were electorally vulnerable, that led to an expansion of American democracy and a reduction in poverty. It could happen again.

[i] Corporate income taxes accounted for 39.8 percent of revenues in 1943, and only 9.9 percent in 2012.  See Joseph Stiglitz, Reforming Taxation to Promote Growth and Equity (New York: Roosevelt Institute, May 28, 2014).

[ii] Eric Foner, America’s Black Past (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), 325.