50 Years Later, It’s Time for a New War on Poverty

Fifty years after LBJ declared war on poverty in America, we need to keep fighting.

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President Lyndon Johnson signs the Economic Opportunity Act on May 21, 1964.

LBJ Library, photo by Cecil Stoughton

Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson gave one of the most important State of the Union speeches in American history. Championing the cause of racial and economic equality, he promised, “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.”

A half-century later, it’s time for America to declare a new war on poverty.

Like the best presidential addresses, Johnson’s “War on Poverty” speech was enormously ambitious. He argued that a nation as rich and powerful as the United States had a political and moral obligation to lift millions out of poverty, help create jobs for inner-city youth, protect the elderly and provide food for the hungry.

The war on poverty became the heart of Johnson’s “Great Society”—a vision of American democracy that sought to amplify and extend social policy enacted during the New Deal to an emerging generation of Americans.

But two generations later, the same inequality Johnson so eloquently described—and vowed to defeat—is growing throughout America, and leaving a wealthy nation scarred with pockmarks of hunger, unemployment, mass incarceration and homelessness.

The anniversary of his speech, though, is an opportunity to ponder missed opportunities, celebrate successful programs and, most importantly, to look ahead to the future.

What can we do now, and how do we want future generations to remember us?

Now is the time for black activists and their allies to demand a new war on poverty. In contrast to 1964, when a burgeoning civil rights movement inspired and cajoled the federal government into action, we live in a time when politicians are loath to speak truthfully about the state of contemporary American politics. Instead, both liberals and conservatives offer bromides about “American exceptionalism” that ignore rampant and politically fueled inequality that marks the post-American century.

Johnson’s State of the Union, by contrast, proved truly remarkable. One is struck, when reading it again, by the president’s bold advocacy of multicultural democracy and social justice that would extend from whites in Appalachia to Native Americans on reservations out to blacks living in inner cities. Rather than abandon those holding onto the nation’s lower economic rungs, Johnson embraced them in a speech that advocated a progressive approach to immigration reform, infrastructure spending and the pursuit of world peace.

Indeed, many of the issues and themes so eloquently and boldly addressed 50 years ago still bedevil contemporary American society and politics. But a new war on poverty could prove just the kind of ambitious political tonic capable of addressing enduring problems.

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