Fighting the War on Poverty

Created By

Ben Leff, University Laboratory High School (Urbana, IL)

  • Post-WWII Domestic Confidence and Unrest, 1945-1968: Fair Deal to Great Society
  • Post-WWII Domestic Confidence and Unrest, 1945-1968: The Civil Rights Movement Expands

Introduction & Context

In his 1964 State of the Union Speech, President Lyndon Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty in America.” A skilled legislative tactician with large Democratic majorities in Congress, Johnson was able to push through a remarkable burst of new government programs and policies in an effort to create what he called the “Great Society.” Unlike the New Deal, a similar avalanche of legislation to address economic problems during the Great Depression, the Great Society was forged during a time of prosperity. If the United States was the wealthiest nation in world history, Johnson and his allies argued, why should the government allow any Americans to suffer under the yoke of poverty?

Perhaps the most influential legislation were the 1965 Amendments to the Social Security Act that provided health care for the elderly (Medicare) and the poor (Medicaid). The Food Stamp Act gave low-income Americans special coupons to buy food. But most War on Poverty programs did not provide direct financial support to poor people. Instead, Congress created programs that aimed to provide poor people with the skills and education needed to rise out of poverty: Head Start programs delivered pre-elementary education to poor children; Job Corps provided vocational training to high school dropouts; federal “Title I” grants supplied additional funding to high-poverty schools; and Education Opportunity Grants enhanced access to higher education. Perhaps most controversially, Community Action Programs (CAPs) provided federal funding to community agencies to run localized social service programs. Importantly, the CAPs were required to involve “maximum feasible participation” of poor people in designing and administering the programs, which sometimes led to “turf battles” between communities and local government officials over control of the programs.

Efforts to fight the War on Poverty were ultimately hindered by various factors, including blowback from the political right, rising inflation, and the war in Vietnam, which by 1967 had captured an increasing share of public attention and the government budget. Nevertheless, the War on Poverty and the broader Great Society marked a significant expansion of the American welfare state whose impact is still felt today (as shown by the persistence of Head Start, Food Stamps, and Medicaid). The War on Poverty also set the stage for debates about the role of government in American society in combating economic deprivation: how much should the government intervene, what strategies and programs should be used, and which American citizens should be given control of those programs?

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Teaching Tips Download PDF

The media sources in this collection introduce students to political conflicts related to the War on Poverty. The first three clips introduce the rationale for fighting the War on Poverty and lay out the general political debates between left and right about the role of government in the economy. The next three sources provide three case studies (Appalachia, Chicago, and Trinidad, CO) that illustrate the social conditions in different impoverished regions of 1960s America and provide some examples of War on Poverty programs that were enacted in this era. The final group of four clips focuses on Black Americans, illustrating the interactions between the War on Poverty and the Black Freedom Struggle. Notably, Community Action Programs became a site of conflict between Black activists and local political leaders in a battle for control of anti-poverty programs.

Background Information

Before engaging with this resource set, students should be familiar with the following:

  • The growing economic prosperity of the United States in the 1950s and 1960s
  • The Black Freedom Struggle
  • The Great Society programs established under President Lyndon Johnson

Essential Question

Why are people poor and what is the role of the state in alleviating poverty?

General Discussion Questions

  • What were the theories about the causes of poverty and social mobility that shaped War on Poverty programs? Do you think the designers of these programs correctly identified these causes?
  • Why did the federal government want Community Action Programs to be federally funded but locally administered with “maximum feasible participation” of poor people? What were some of the challenges that emerged in American communities as the CAPs were implemented across the country?
  • What was the relationship between the War on Poverty and the Black Freedom Struggle? Why might some historians argue that the battle for control of Community Action Programs shaped the growth of the Black Power movement?
  • Do you believe that any American can rise out of poverty through their own efforts, or does the government need to equalize opportunity and remove structural barriers to upward mobility?
  • What steps do you think the government should (or shouldn’t) take to help Americans rise out of poverty?

Classroom Activities

1) The Political Debate about the War on Poverty

Ask students the following discussion questions:

  • What are some arguments that Harrington and Johnson are making about why poverty is a serious social problem that the government needs to fix?
  • In these clips, you heard the views of various left-wing politicians and social commentators. What seem to be some theories about the causes of poverty and social mobility that shaped War on Poverty programs?
  • What seem to be some right-wing criticisms about using government policy as a means of addressing poverty?

2) Impoverished Regions and Community Action Programs

Ask students to watch the following sources:

Ask students the following discussion questions:

  • According to the clips, what are some of the social and economic problems that contributed to poverty? What are some of the ways that War on Poverty programs sought to address poverty?
  • Why do you think the Johnson Administration wanted Community Action Programs to be community-run with “maximum feasible participation” by poor people? What reasons are articulated in the clips? Do you suspect that there were any other motivations that weren’t explicitly stated in the clips?
  • Do you think the locally-run CAP’s were a good way to tackle the problem of poverty? What do you see as the value of these programs? What do you suspect were the limitations of these programs?

3) The War on Poverty and the Black Freedom Struggle

Ask students to watch the following video:

Ask students the following discussion questions:

  • What does Lyndon Johnson mean when he says that “freedom is not enough”? What point is he making in his analogy about asking someone to run a “race” when they were just recently “hobbled by chains”? Why might some people argue that War on Poverty programs represented an effort to create “equal opportunity” and “equality of result”?

Next, ask students to watch the following sources:

Ask students the following discussion questions:

  • How are the dynamics of these two conflicts similar? How are they different? How can you relate these clips to the emergence of the Black Power movement in the late 1960s?

Finally, ask students to listen to the following source:

Ask students the following discussion questions:

  • Based on the clip description and the clip itself, what is Rustin’s critique of the War on Poverty and why would a “Freedom Budget” be more effective? What is his critique of the actions of “Black militants” who are fighting for control of anti-poverty programs?

Extension Activity: If you have time for an extension activity, have students write a “Letter to the Editor” channeling a particular perspective about Black community involvement in War on Poverty programs. Have students choose one of the following perspectives:

  • a supporter of Lyndon Johnson explaining why the War on Poverty is essential to granting opportunity and meaningful social equality to Black people
  • a member of the CDGM in Mississippi arguing that the federal government must restore Head Start funding
  • a Los Angeles activist protesting the firing of Opal Jones
  • a local government official arguing that professionals, rather than community activists, should be shaping the direction of CAPs.
  • a supporter of Bayard Rustin making the case that Black activists should fight for the enactment of a “Freedom Budget” rather than local control of CAPs

4) Assessing the War on Poverty

On the White House lawn in 1987, President Ronald Reagan quipped that “in the sixties we waged a war on poverty, and poverty won.” This is just one example of how the arguments over War on Poverty programs continued long after Johnson left office. Historians and politicians continue to debate: Did the War on Poverty work? Did Community Action Programs, Medicaid, Head Start, Food Stamps, and other anti-poverty programs succeed in improving the lives of impoverished Americans?

If you have time, a useful culminating activity would be to allow students to grapple with these questions. After they have watched at least some of the above clips, have students read the following reports that were published near the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty:

Here are some questions you could have students discuss after they are done reading:

  • According to the CBPP, what has happened to poverty in America since the 1960s? Why might government programs associated with the War on Poverty be partially responsible for these changes?
  • What criticisms are leveled against government anti-poverty programs in the Heritage Foundation reports? What are some of the negative developments in American life that the authors believe are partially the result of the misguided government policy?
  • The CBPP source uses the federal government’s new “Supplemental Poverty Measure” in their report. Why might the authors argue that this measure is a better way of understanding the impact of government policy? Why might the authors of the Heritage Foundation disagree with the use of that metric?
  • Based on what you learned from the clips above and what you read in these two reports, what do you think? Did War on Poverty programs reduce poverty rates? What government programs do you think are most helpful to impoverished Americans? What programs are least helpful?

Additional Resources

  • Lyndon B. Johnson: Domestic Affairs, University of Virginia Miller Center
  • LBJ and the Great Society, PBS Learning Media
  • Citation

    Leff, Ben. "Fighting the War on Poverty" WGBH and the Library of Congress.