Editors’ note: This article is from NPQ’s fall 2015 edition, “Making Things Work: Considerations in Nonprofit Strategy.”
In some political circles, it is automatically assumed that the War on Poverty was a failure. At the National Urban League conference in July of 2015, former governor of Florida and presidential candidate Jeb Bush described the War on Poverty as a “decades-long effort [that] while well intentioned, has been a losing one. And the casualties can be counted in the millions who never had the chance at work and whose families fell victim to drugs, violence, and the crushing of the spirit.” Arthur Brooks, president of the influential conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, described the “failure” of the War on Poverty as one of the reasons for writing his new book, The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America. As Brooks explained, while “there have been some government programs that have alleviated a non-trivial amount of material need […] the initiative has been a failure ultimately because it didn’t meet its own original aspirations […and] the big-government apparatus we’ve set up in the decades since has failed to meet these aspirations. Policy-makers couldn’t give people what they need and want—earned success, dignity, and a sense of moral worth. Further, it lowered incentives for employment and family formation. So after at least $15 trillion in spending, we transformed ourselves from a society that had way too much poverty into a society that had less material need but also less work and family.” Representative Paul Ryan, who wrote his own antipoverty plan as chairman of the House Budget Committee, describes the history of the War on Poverty in an interview with John Stossel as “basically managing poverty, and as a result, we’re perpetuating poverty—and so many of these programs end up disincentivizing work.”
Such statements are all basically reprises of Ronald Reagan’s assertion in his 1988 State of the Union address: “Some years ago, the federal government declared war on poverty, and poverty won.” Reagan was wrong then, and the broad-brush assertions of his political descendants are wrong now. And Sheldon Danziger, president of the Russell Sage Foundation, former director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and former director of the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan, is well positioned to explain why.
Danziger doesn’t deal with political sound bites but rather deep research into this country’s antipoverty efforts. The author, coauthor, and editor of several volumes on the policies, practices, and outcomes of the War on Poverty has examined in exhaustive detail the meaning and relevance of the War on Poverty for today’s social policies—particularly in Fighting Poverty: What Works and What Doesn’t (1986, coedited with Daniel Weinberg), America Unequal (1995, coauthored with Peter Gottschalk), and Legacies of the War on Poverty (2013, coedited with Martha J. Bailey).
Programs that had their origins in the War on Poverty exist today, with continued significant impacts in urban and rural communities across the country. There are Head Start, Section 8 housing subsidies, Legal Services Corporation programs, food stamps (now SNAP), Medicare and Medicaid, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), programs for low-income education, neighborhood health centers, and much more—all of which were created in, or significantly expanded during, the War on Poverty, launched during the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson. But the War on Poverty is much more than a list of categorical programs. Johnson thought of the War on Poverty as an integrated bundle of efforts addressing “[p]overty as a national program, requiring improved national organization and support,” as he explained in his 1964 State of the Union address. Moreover, the War on Poverty was more than simply programs; it was built on the infrastructure of the mobilization done by the poor themselves through community action agencies that gave voice and power to those constituencies that were to be helped by the programs.
Danziger’s research dives into the categorical programs of the War on Poverty, the interaction of specific programs with the community infrastructure that was to inculcate and implement them, and the programs that emerged in the ensuing years. To explore what worked and what continues to work in the War on Poverty, Danziger was interviewed by Nonprofit Quarterly National Correspondent Rick Cohen, whose own involvement in the War on Poverty was as a young planner for Action for Boston Community Development—one of the original antipoverty agencies—and later as an evaluator, consultant, and technical assistance provider to community action agencies around the nation.
Rick Cohen: With so much polarized political discourse over the decades around matters of public policy, we tend as a nation to forget that in fact we know a great deal about what works and what does not, due to the efforts of the people in the trenches and the academic researchers, historians, and journalists tracking those efforts over the years. The War on Poverty, a subject that you have done much research on, of course, is one such public program that politicians argue over. Can you talk a little about what you think are the lessons of the War on Poverty in terms of what worked and where that takes us today?
Sheldon Danziger: It is important to recognize that antipoverty programs operate in the context of overall economic conditions. Prior to President Johnson’s launching the War on Poverty, journalists and scholars—most notably Michael Harrington, in his book The Other America, and John Kenneth Galbraith, in The Affluent Society—pointed out that even though the American economy had grown rapidly from the end of World War II into the 1960s, there were many people being left behind. So, the War on Poverty was premised on the assumption that because the economy had grown steadily for the quarter century after World War II, the new poverty programs would just have to bring those left out into the economic mainstream.
This was a period during which a rising tide did lift all boats, with wages adjusted for inflation increasing across the occupation and education spectrum for blue-collar workers with a high school degree and managers with a college degree. This golden age of the economy was the background against which the War on Poverty was launched. Johnson’s economic advisers assumed that this economy would continue. The focus in the Johnson programs was on bringing people into the mainstream by increasing their education and, most importantly, reducing discrimination, so that those who had been left behind could now move forward.
The War on Poverty was closely linked with the civil rights movement. For example, Head Start would increase school readiness, the Job Corps would increase employability, and the first federal aid for scholarships in higher education would increase college attendance. All of these programs sought to build human capital to raise the earnings of the next generation of workers. In addition, many of the programs raised the incomes of the poor or expanded their access to basic services. These included the Food Stamp Program, Medicare, Medicaid, increases in the minimum wage, and increased Social Security benefits. All of these programs and policies were put in place in the early years of the War on Pov