How LBJ Waged a War on Poverty

Was LBJ the Most Progressive U.S. President in History?


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Curing poverty is easier said than done, but Lyndon B. Johnson was determined to do just that. Shortly after taking office, LBJ set his sights on what he called the “War on Poverty” and proposed several key pieces of legislation that were targeted squarely at solving the systemic problem of economic inequality. His agenda unleashed a new way of thinking in American politics, namely the central idea of compassion for the less fortunate. While many of these ideas persist today, such progressive legislation is often hard to find in Washington. Take a look back at LBJ’s historic “War on Poverty.”

Faced with a Crisis

Lyndon B. Johnson wasn’t officially elected president when he was sworn in in 1963. John F. Kennedy had just been assassinated and the nation was in mourning. Johnson eventually won in a landslide in 1964, dominating the Electoral College map. During his address to Congress, Johnson declared a “War on Poverty.” At the time, the poverty level in the United States was approaching nineteen percent, not exactly a cheerful situation. Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Johnson gained support for several key anti-poverty initiatives.

The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964

The most prominent feature of Johnson’s legislative agenda was the Economic Opportunity Act in 1964. Its mission was to eliminate poverty by providing educational assistance to young people and the poor. It developed the Job Corps, which was a localized effort to give men and women ages sixteen to twenty-one the skills they would need to get a job. Those looking for work could spend time learning about the ins and outs of the most in-demand jobs on the market.

The act also started the Work Study Program, which gave grants to students looking to enroll at a university by paying them for part-time employment. It also began adult education programs, designed to give unemployed or underemployed adults the chance to find a new career. It also gave low-interest loans to rural and impoverished families, created volunteer programs, and gave assistance to non-profit organizations.

Food Stamps and Ousting Hunger

Johnson and his administration knew that education was only part of the problem. It all starts at the dinner table. Johnson created the Food Stamp Act of 1964, helping those suffering from poverty get access to basic nutrients, most notably baby formula. For single mothers and poor families raising a young child, this made all the difference in the world.

Healthcare Reform and Entitlements

Medicaid and Medicare probably wouldn’t be around today if it weren’t for LBJ. The Social Security Act of 1964 used federal funds to help pay for the exorbitant cost of healthcare for the elderly and the poor. When a person reaches the age of 62, the government will step in and help foot the bill for all of their medical expenses.

LBJ’s “War on Poverty” was far-reaching and effective. By the 1970s, the poverty level was down to eleven percent. Granted, the downward trend in poverty rates began in 1959, five years before the “War on Poverty” was enacted.

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