Lyndon Johnson on Welfare & Poverty



After 50 years, War on Poverty has 40 controversial programs

The ambitious "Great Society" agenda begun half a century ago continues to touch nearly every aspect of American life. But the deep philosophical divide it created has come to define the nation's harsh politics, especially in the Obama era. On the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's declaration of a War on Poverty, Republicans and Democrats are engaged in a battle over whether its 40 government programs have succeeded in lifting people from privation or worsened the situation by trapping the poor in dependency.

Many of today's fiercest political debates can be traced to the aspirations of the Great Society, the domestic programs it spawned during the 1960s, and the doubts it raised about the role and reach of Washington. Johnson's years in office saw the greatest expansion of government since FDR's New Deal, and even exceeded the scope of those Depression-era programs. The two parties have been fighting about it ever since.

Source: Washington Post, "Great Society 50th Anniversary" , Jan 8, 2014

Great Society today: Head Start; food stamps; NEA; Job Corps

Johnson announced the War on Poverty in his 1964 State of the Union address. Four months later, in a commencement speech at the University of Michigan, he put forward a more far-reaching vision, declaring that "we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society."

It would ultimately include a raft of initiatives: Medicare and Medicaid, the first direct federal aid to school districts, Head Start, food stamps, landmark environmental legislation, the Job Corps to provide vocational education, urban renewal programs, national endowments for the arts and humanities, civil rights legislation, funding for bilingual education.

The political environment was ripe: The nation was reeling from the assassination of a young, idealistic president; Johnson had a firm hold on his governing coalition; and the economy was booming.

Source: Washington Post, "Great Society 50th Anniversary" , Jan 8, 2014

War on Poverty results: poverty down; safety net up

Source: Christian Science Monitor, "Great Society 50th Anniversary" , Jan 8, 2014

Address poverty with programs for both urban and rural poor

By saying he was trying to blend urban and cattle country, "it struck me that the poverty program itself was a blend of the same: of the needs and desperate desires of the poor in the city ghettos and the poor in obscure rural hollows"--and that the new program must therefore include provisions not only for the urban slums on which attention was focused but also for rural areas.
Source: Passage of Power, by Robert Caro, p.544 , May 1, 2012

Weapons in War on Poverty: better schools; health; and homes

In the 2nd major speech of his presidency, the State of the Union address he delivered to Congress on January 8, 1964, announced nothing less than a crusade. It was a crusade for a noble end. The speech made clear on whose behalf the crusade would be launched. "Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope--some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both," he said:

"Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity. This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. Our chief weapons will be better schools, and better health, and better homes, and better training, and better job opportunities to help more Americans, especially young Americans, escape from squalor and misery and unemployment," he said. And the speech announced also the crusade's goal, which was revolutionary: "not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it."

Source: Passage of Power, by Robert Caro, p. xvii-xviii , May 1, 2012

War on Poverty later widened to Great Society

[In his 1964 State of the Union address, Johnson launched the "War on Poverty", announcing]: "Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope--some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both."

The program to which he was committing was one whose purpose was to right, on a vast scale, past wrongs, to use to an extent rare in history a great nation's wealth to ameliorate the harshness of life for a portion of its citizens too often overlooked by government in the past. It was clear that it was a program whose aim was to launch America on a course toward social justice that, were it to be completed, would result in nothing less than a society's transformation. In fact, during the following years, Lyndon Johnson widened the War on Poverty by introducing legislation on a dozen fronts to transform not just low-income American but the nation as a whole into "the Great Society."

Source: Passage of Power, by Robert Caro, p. xviii , May 1, 2012

1964: Food Stamps, initially 350,000 people, now 42 million

In 2010 came news that 41.8 million Americans were on food stamps and the White House was predicting that the number would grow to 43 million in 2011. It did: by February 2011, 44.2 million Americans, one in seven, were on food stamps. In Washington, D.C., more than a fifth of the population was receiving food stamps.

To chart America's decline, the explosion in the food stamp program is a good place to begin. A harbinger of the Great Society, the Food Stamp Act was signed into law in 1964 by LBJ. Initially, $75 million was appropriated for 350,000 individuals in forty counties and three cities. However, no one was starving in the 1960s.

Source: Suicide of a Superpower, by Pat Buchanan, p. 32 , Oct 18, 2011

FactCheck: Poverty rate has fallen under Great Society

Bill O'Reilly of Fox News said that the poverty rate has stayed about the same since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society of the mid-1960s. He said, "Obama believes Johnson's Great Society entitlements can elevate the poor to prosperity. They can't. In 1965, the poverty rate stood at 14%. Now, after untold trillions have been spent fighting poverty, the poverty rate is 14.3%."

The Great Society agenda included such ongoing programs as Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start--intended to improve the health care, Nutrition, & education; and focused on elderly poverty, which is down to 13%. That said, we'll take O'Reilly's statement on its own terms:

He uses the wrong numbers. The poverty rate was 17.3% in 1965, not 14%. So the poverty has fallen by 3 percentage points, or by about 1/6 its original level.

Counting different years shows even more decline. In 1962, the poverty rate ranged was 20%. In pre-recession 2007, it stood at 12.5%. Comparing 1962 and 2007, the poverty rate dropped by over 1/3.

Source: FactCheck on 2011 Presidential primary by PolitiFact.com , Jul 26, 2011

Announced "War on Poverty" in 1965

President Lyndon Johnson famously announced the War on Poverty. From 1965 to 2008, total spending on this "war" reached nearly $16 trillion in 2008 dollars. And what did we get in return? Soon after the War on Poverty programs were adopted, the years-long decline in American poverty suddenly stopped. By 2009 the poverty rate stood at 14.3%--about where it was when the War of Poverty began. In 1960, nearly 2/3rds of low-income households were headed by persons who worked, but by 1991, the proportion had fallen to 1/3, with only 11% working full time, year round. With the government providing so much in free welfare, many people chose not to work. Welfare recipients who go to work lose their benefits as their income rises. This is effectively an extra tax on work that must be paid on top of the usual array of federal, state, and local taxes.
Source: A Nation Like No Other, by Newt Gingrich, p.109 , Jun 13, 2011

OpEd: Legacy of Great Society is red tape & deficits

In my lifetime, without question, the President who lied the most and did the most damage to the United States was Lyndon Johnson. It was Johnson who misled the American people about war in Asia. It was Johnson who designed a disastrous economic policy that fueled the inflation from which we are only now recovering. It was Johnson's politics of irresponsible promises which led to riots on the campuses and in the cities. It was Johnson's "Great Society" which is smothering us in red tape, fiscal deficits and massive bureaucracy.
--Newt Gingrich Speech, "The survival of the Two-Party System" (Ingram Library, West Georgia College) 1976
Source: Quotations from Speaker Newt, by A.&P. Bernstein, p. 82-3 , Jan 1, 1995

Great Society required business community's support

LBJ sensed intuitively that if his plans for the Great Society were to be realized he must have in his corner the business community. He would be hard-pressed to gather congressional support for the massive funding he was looking for if the business and industrial leaders of the country looked sourly on his course of action. A robust economy was the rock on which he would build his society. So he did what he always did when he began to construct his dreams for what he believed to be the right decision to be made; he "reasoned" with those he needed as allies.

There came to the White House, in waves of meetings and dinners and luncheons, the premier captains of the American industrial empire. He sought them out, singly and together. He paid court to them, listened to them, persuaded them their advice was essential and their power necessary to the momentum of the economy, and of course, the Johnsonian legislative program.

Source: A Very Human President, by Jack Valenti, p.199 , Dec 1, 1976

Rent supplements cost less than public housing

At a staff meeting, LBJ admonished his staff: "These men have to go back and get re-elected every two years. Just telling them rent supplements is fine is not enough. Most of them will tell you 'how can I explain that one?' and they're right. Get the facts on all the subsidies the government pays to farmers & to every damn interest sucking on the public teat. Our argument ought to be, look, we pay blank dollars per person to subsidize these various interests. Why can't we pay much less per person to provide a poor family with a home? It will cost the government less, rent supplements versus public housing. Make it all in dollars and cents, so that when he gets back home he can go on TV and say, 'Folks, I saved you a lot of tax dollars the other day when I voted for rent supplements. It's going to save the taxpayer blank dollars per person per year.' Now, few people will get upset if you tell them you are saving them money, if at the same time you are not taking anything away from them."
Source: A Very Human President, by Jack Valenti, p.190-191 , Dec 1, 1976

1964: declares unconditional war on poverty

Anti-poverty went into the 1964 State of the Union message, first in emphasis, and it was expressed in language which made the program, whatever plans the Kennedy administration may have had, an LBJ measure. "This administration," declared Lyndon Johnson like a trumpet call at the Alamo, "today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon nor strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. We must pursue poverty, pursue it wherever it exists--in city slums and small towns, in sharecropper shacks or in migrant-worker camps, in Indian reservations, in the boom towns & in the depressed areas."

Most Johnsonian was the core of the message. Social legislation plus economy--the blend was heavily emphasized near the start of the speech, and the President touched on it at every opportunity.

Source: Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson, by Eric F. Goldman, p. 46 , Mar 1, 1974

Urban Development Bank; build 500,000 homes for needy

In 1966, Congress declared that "improving the quality of urban life is the most critical domestic problem." Two years later it affirmed the historic goal of "a decent home for every American family." Now to meet these commitments, we must increase our support for the model cities program.

To achieve the goals of the Housing Act of 1968 that you have already passed, we should begin this year more than 500,000 homes for needy families in the coming fiscal year. Funds are provided in the new budget to do just this. This is almost 10 times--10 times--the average rate of the past 10 years.

Our cities and our towns are being pressed for funds to meet the needs of their growing populations. So I believe an urban development bank should be created by the Congress. This bank could obtain resources through the issuance of taxable bonds and it could then lend these resources at reduced rates to the communities throughout the land for schools, hospitals, parks, and other public facilities.

Source: Pres. Johnson's 1969 State of the Union message to Congress , Jan 14, 1969

Three paths of Great Society: growth, justice and liberation

The Great Society leads us along three roads--growth and justice and liberation.
Source: Pres. Johnson's 1966 State of the Union message to Congress , Jan 12, 1966

War on poverty will not be a short or easy struggle

Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope--some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.

This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it. $1,000 invested in salvaging an unemployable youth today can return $40,000 or more in his lifetime.

Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support. But this attack, to be effective, must also be organized at the State & local level and must be supported and directed by State & local efforts.

The program will emphasize this cooperative approach to help that 1/5 of all American families with incomes too small to even meet their basic needs.

Source: Pres. Johnson's 1964 State of the Union message to Congress , Jan 8, 1964

National Service Corps as a domestic Peace Corps

[The War on Poverty] must pursue poverty, pursue it wherever it exists. Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it. No single piece of legislation, however, is going to suffice:
Source: Pres. Johnson's 1964 State of the Union message to Congress , Jan 8, 1964

  • Click here for definitions & background information on Welfare & Poverty.
  • Click here for VoteMatch responses by Lyndon Johnson.
  • Click here for AmericansElect.org quiz by Lyndon Johnson.
Other past presidents on Welfare & Poverty: Lyndon Johnson on other issues:
Former Presidents:
Barack Obama(D,2009-2017)
George W. Bush(R,2001-2009)
Bill Clinton(D,1993-2001)
George Bush Sr.(R,1989-1993)
Ronald Reagan(R,1981-1989)
Jimmy Carter(D,1977-1981)
Gerald Ford(R,1974-1977)
Richard Nixon(R,1969-1974)
Lyndon Johnson(D,1963-1969)
John F. Kennedy(D,1961-1963)
Dwight Eisenhower(R,1953-1961)
Harry S Truman(D,1945-1953)

Past Vice Presidents:
V.P.Joseph Biden
V.P.Dick Cheney
V.P.Al Gore
V.P.Dan Quayle
Sen.Bob Dole

Political Parties:
Republican Party
Democratic Party
Libertarian Party
Green Party
Reform Party
Natural Law Party
Tea Party
Constitution Party
Civil Rights
Foreign Policy
Free Trade
Govt. Reform
Gun Control
Health Care
Homeland Security
Social Security
Tax Reform

Page last updated: Feb 22, 2022