This week marks the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s request that Congress enact legislation to pursue a “war on poverty.” Johnson had declared this “war” in his January 8, 1964 State of the Union message; now he pushed for the legislation to wage it. In a special message to Congress on March 16, 1964, Johnson proposed an Economic Opportunity Act which, he said, would strike “at the causes, not just the consequences of poverty.” Johnson’s broad agenda included training opportunities for impoverished youth in the form of a Job Corps and several training and work study programs to be funded largely through a new Office of Economic Opportunity; a volunteer corps of anti-poverty workers that would be called VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America); and loans and guarantees to employers who would hire the unemployed. At the same time, Johnson asked Congress to enact a federal food stamp program and the health insurance program for the elderly that would come to be called Medicare. Johnson likened his broad set of proposals to the actions of other presidents who had “requested from Congress the authority to move against forces which were endangering the well-being of our country.” Much of the legislation he called for was enacted in the following two years.
Today, as pundits note the anniversary of Johnson’s antipoverty initiative, a debate rages over whether the war on poverty has succeeded or failed. What do you and your students think?