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.

President Lyndon Johnson signs the Economic Opportunity Act on May 21, 1964. LBJ Library, photo by Cecil Stoughton

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.

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the biggest loss of wealth and jobs since the Great Depression, America has witnessed a staggeringly uneven recovery that has overwhelmingly favored the rich. Congress is so dysfunctional that even with an unemployment rate surpassing 7 percent, benefits for the jobless seeking work have been cut, a situation that is still unresolved.

So what is to be done? For starters, those of us—of all stripes—interested in racial, economic and gender justice can unequivocally declare 2014 the year of the new war on poverty. Through social media (how about a hashtag? #NewWarOnPoverty), blogs, editorial pages, protests, demonstrations and lobbying, this year could go down in history as a time when an entire generation looked toward its not so recent past for a way forward into the future.

A contemporary poverty war unapologetically presumes the importance of not only an activist government but of active citizenship. During the 1960s it was the latter, most often but not exclusively led by black folks who pushed, cajoled, demanded and inspired the federal government, not to mention millions of ordinary Americans, to reimagine democratic ideas and ideals. That activism was channeled by leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and eventually voiced by President Johnson. Activists rallied to Johnson’s war on poverty, and held his feet to the fire over the war in Vietnam.

The beauty of the war on poverty was the way in which it served as a wellspring for evermore ambitious and humane visions of American and global society. Fifty years later that vision remains more compelling than ever. Our task—our moral and civic obligation—is to renew the dream of ending inequality for future generations by starting with our own.

Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published in 2014 by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.