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A complete war on poverty would involve much more.
Peter Edelman

Originally published August 29, 2004 in the Minneapolis Star Tribune

This month we mark the 40th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's signing the Economic Opportunity Act, or the "War on Poverty," as it came to be known.

The 1960s were heady times, and a lot happened that was of enduring significance. The first truly major civil rights legislation since the Civil War was also enacted in 1964, and Medicare was created a year later.

How about the war on poverty? What's our take on it now, in a nation that still counts 35 million of its people as poor? Was President Ronald Reagan right when he said, "We fought a war on poverty and poverty won"?

Reagan was playing off Johnson's penchant for Texas hyperbole. The work toward what became the Economic Opportunity Act had begun when President John Kennedy took office in 1961. But it didn't become a "war" on poverty until LBJ became president and adopted the issue as his own -- and one of his speechwriters wanted a truly grand phrase.

Whether Johnson knew it or not, he was setting things up for Reagan's attack: What he signed into law in 1964 was an important and constructive piece of legislation, but it was not an all-out war to end poverty in America .

A little history explains why. The planning started in Attorney General Robert Kennedy's office in 1961. RFK installed his high school friend David Hackett in an office right next to his and told him to work on juvenile delinquency. Hackett gathered a large team of experts to figure out how Washington could help communities steer young people toward brighter futures and away from trouble with the law.

A year or so later, under steady prodding from the attorney general, they realized they were really talking about poverty. RFK pressed for two elements: an opportunity for young people to serve in a domestic peace corps, and a major voice for low-income people themselves in running any new programs designed to serve them.

After President Kennedy was assassinated, the center of gravity moved to the White House, where Johnson was beginning to craft a domestic agenda of his own and where Walter Heller, the Minnesota professor who was his chief economic adviser, had already been working on the poverty issue. Heller's plan was to open up economic opportunity through training and education, especially for young people. He saw the economy beginning to heat up from the slump of 1960-61, and thought the jobs would be there if people were equipped to take them.

Not everyone agreed. Labor Secretary Willard Wirtz believed that prosperity would never reach the nation's inner cities or the hollows of Appalachia , and he pressed for a major (and expensive) job creation program. Wilbur Cohen at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare advocated more cash assistance for poor families.

Heller, joined by Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver, carried the day. The bill that became the Economic Opportunity Act contained no new welfare benefits and no major jobs program, but rather a collection of small projects aimed to improve education and community development, such as Head Start and the Job Corps. In other words, the "war on poverty" was basically Heller's opportunity strategy, with a dollop of community organizing and a few important human services thrown in.

Why? LBJ liked the price tag -- he had pledged in his State of the Union Address to actually cut federal spending in 1965 -- and he figured there was enough substance and shine involved to make a sale to the public without having his overall budget break the $100 billion mark. (Yes, the entire budget of the United States government was less than $100 billion a year at that time.)

The problem was not just that the Vietnam War stopped the momentum toward full investment in the antipoverty program, although that's true. The deeper point is that, apart from the rhetoric, the war on poverty was not a true full-scale assault. Everything in it was constructive, and every piece still exists today in one form or another. Head Start, VISTA, the Job Corps, Foster Grandparents, Upward Bound, community health centers, legal services for the poor, and the often (and unfairly) maligned community action program -- all still exist today, and all are still doing important work that helps to prevent and reduce poverty.

Nothing wrong-- just a bit of a hodgepodge, and just not enough. Even with the rest of Johnson's Great Society measures -- civil rights, Medicare and Medicaid, federal aid to education, housing -- the whole strategy was a bit like a doughnut, very tasty but empty at the center. (Although if we didn't have all of the various federal antipoverty policies that we have today, we would have something like 50 percent more people in poverty than we actually have).

A complete war on poverty would involve much more: ensuring a quality education for every child, the guarantee of good jobs, universal health coverage, quality child care, adequate housing assistance and a safety net for those not in a position to work. In other words, a jobs and income strategy. Not there in 1964 -- missing, not present.

Does that mean the war on poverty was a mistake? Not at all. Along with the rest of the Great Society, it contained vital building blocks that we can add to now. It would have been better if the rhetoric had been a little less fulsome, but the fact is that we can rightly mark the 40th anniversary of the Economic Opportunity Act as a worthy occasion.

So long as we commit ourselves now to finishing the job.

© Copyright 2004 Star Tribune.

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