While there have been some successes in the "War on Poverty" launched in 1964 by Lyndon Johnson, many goals have not been realized in large part because of conservatives' efforts to defeat the effort. That effort continues today as we witness the Republican Party seeking to cut food stamps, killing unemployment benefits and resisting Medicaid expansion. A piece at Think Progress looks at the war against the poor that has helped to keep America with an embarrassingly high poverty rate. Here are excerpts:
It has been 50 years since Lyndon Johnson first declared that the nation could, “for the first time in our history,” conquer and win a war on poverty, pledging a “total commitment by this President, and this Congress, and this nation, to pursue victory over the most ancient of mankind’s enemies.” In the years that followed, lawmakers weaved a social safety net that still endures to this day, providing educational opportunities for low income Americans, retirement and health care security to the low income and elderly, and food assistance to the hungry.
But following World War II and the rise of the Civil Rights movement, welfare programs opened to African Americans, triggering a counterattack from conservatives in both political parties who sought to portray these programs as wasteful, unnecessary, and encouraging government dependence.
Beginning in 1964 and stretching through today, conservative leaders systematically undermined the programs that shaped Johnson’s War on Poverty, frequently deploying racist and sexist arguments to take away public assistance from the poorest Americans. Their rhetoric didn’t directly undo these social programs, but it chipped away at their foundation and altered Americans’ perceptions about the proper role of government. ThinkProgress spoke to six American historians of the Johnson era about the evolution of racist and sexist attacks against social welfare programs, some of which can still be heard in the debates in Washington today.
Reagan: “She wanted a divorce to get an 80 dollar raise.”
In 1964, Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act, establishing the Office of Economic Opportunity, to run Johnson’s “community action program.” The initiative established a “community action agency” in each city and county to coordinate all federal and state programs designed to help the poor. Most Republicans voted against the effort, arguing that “it would be wasted money, it would be used as pork,” Michael Katz, a University of Pennsylvania professor and the author of The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty, explained. With the Republicans united against it, Johnson pushed through the program by appealing to southern Democrats who were very fearful of any federal program, “but who had very poor white constituents and saw that as a benefit,” Julian Zelizer, a professor of history at Princeton University said. “In the end, the initial War on Poverty was passed not with Republicans, but around them.”
Reagan tapped into the anxieties about the role of women during that day, suggesting that they would divorce their husbands to receive more government assistance:
Now—so now we declare “war on poverty”… But seriously, what are we doing to those we seek to help? Not too long ago, a judge called me here in Los Angeles. He told me of a young woman who’d come before him for a divorce. She had six children, was pregnant with her seventh. Under his questioning, she revealed her husband was a laborer earning 250 dollars a month. She wanted a divorce to get an 80 dollar raise. She’s eligible for 330 dollars a month in the Aid to Dependent Children Program. She got the idea from two women in her neighborhood who’d already done that very thing.“The image is not just of poverty, the image is of moral depravity,” Jeremi Suri of The University of Texas at Austin noted. “The presumption in Reagan’s rhetoric, and it’s not too below the surface, is that these mothers are single mothers because they’ve done something wrong, so they’re an easy target. It’s easy to make the argument that this woman who [had apparently been] immoral in the way she behaves…and we as a government should not encourage that kind of immoral behavior.”
Nixon claims the War on Poverty programs led to race riots, “violence and failure across the land.”
By the late 1960s, as racial riots erupted in the nation’s biggest cities, Republicans and even conservative and liberal Democrats began to characterize Johnson’s programs as wasteful and saw it as the source of racial turmoil. “After 1966, Republicans are accusing the War on Poverty for being the reason for all of the rioting taking place in places like Detroit, arguing that it’s actually causing more problems than it’s solving and part of a law-and-order problem that becomes very big in the 1960s,” Katz says.
Reagan seizes on “the continued backlash against civil rights” to oppose welfare programs.
By the time he makes a second bid for the White House in 1980, “Reagan really ingeniously pairs [the conservative argument about welfare government dysfunction] with the continued backlash against civil rights,” Orleck said. The candidate kicked off the general campaign at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, not far from where the bodies of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney were found. As Bob Herbert explained, “The case was still a festering sore at that time” as some of the conspirators “were still being protected by the local community. And white supremacy was still the order of the day.” Reagan was the first presidential candidate ever to appear at the fair, and he knew exactly what he was doing when he told that crowd, “I believe in states’ rights.”
Indeed, the characterization built off previous claims that some women, particularly black women, were acting like welfare queens, cheating the system by collecting multiple Social Security and welfare checks, earning an annual income of “over $150,000.”
“In this discussion, every time you hear ‘woman,’ what you’re really hearing is single black woman,” James Galbraith, of the University of Texas, explained. “This was not an effort that was aimed at single white women… The stigmatization was very much targeted at poor women, and on poor black women specifically.”
There's more and the piece deserves a full read. It's not a pretty picture but it seems to ring true. We continue to see the GOP engaging in the same tactics even today.