Recalling America's 'war on poverty'

January 16, 1995

On August 20, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act committing the nation to the most ambitious assault on poverty since the New Deal a quarter century earlier. It was the beginning of what would become the "war on poverty," and Johnson was fully conscious of the enormity of the task that lay ahead.

"This program," he said, "is much more than a beginning. It is a total commitment by the president, this Congress and this nation to pursue victory over the most ancient of mankind's enemies. . . If we can move forward against this enemy . . . then this day and this Congress will have won a more secure and honorable place in the history of the nation and the enduring gratitude of generations of Americans to come."

Those heady days are vividly recalled in a new PBS miniseries, "America's War on Poverty," that will air for three consecutive nights starting tonight. Produced by Henry Hampton -- creator of "The Depression" and the award-winning "Eyes on the Prize" retrospective of the civil rights era -- the programs examine the accomplishments as well as the failures of one of the most ambitious social experiments in our history.

Today it is fashionable in some quarters to dismiss the "War on Poverty" and the Great Society programs that followed as dismal examples of the failure of Big Government. Yet at the time it was considered a success; by 1973 the U.S. poverty rate had declined to an all-time low of 11.1 percent.

Programs such as Head Start, Job Corps and Vista reached into every corner of America, from Appalachia to the rural South to the inner-city slums, bringing opportunity and hope to the nation's poorest communities. The social and racial tensions that had threatened to tear the country apart a decade earlier had been largely contained. Even after Johnson was forced from office by critics of the Vietnam War, the Republican administration of President Nixon lauded the successes of his war on poverty and continued to fund its programs. Many of them continue to this day.

Twenty years later, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Johnson's former secretary of labor, wrote that ultimately the failures of the Great Society stemmed from attempting too little rather than too much. As Congress again prepares to restructure government -- this time using the Great Society as a model of what not to do -- Americans would do well to recall the many valuable lessons this fascinating period in our history offers.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.