Clarence Page: What LBJ’s poverty ‘war’ won

Jan. 15, 2014 @ 08:41 PM

Happy birthday, “War on Poverty.”
Fifty years after Lyndon B. Johnson declared that war in his Jan. 8, 1964, State of the Union address, it looks like “poverty won,” if you ignore all of the places where it didn’t.
Judging a project as mammoth as LBJ’s anti-poverty war is a lot like the proverbial elephant in the hands of blind men: Your perceptions of the beast depend on which part you grab onto.
I, for example, stepped into that war effort in the summer of 1967 as a college student in Ohio University’s (Go Bobcats!) Upward Bound program.
The program, aimed at encouraging bright teens in that struggling Appalachian region to go to college, gave me a close-up education in what can go right and wrong with well-intentioned government social service crusades.
Though we had some successes, the program lacked funding for a critical component: follow-up. Once the kids finished, they were on their own, except for a few youngsters with whom some of us on staff informally kept in touch.
Fortunately, Upward Bound survived and has been greatly improved. It boasts among its more successful participants are Oprah Winfrey, Patrick Ewing, ABC News correspondent John Quinones, and former NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez.
Yet the lack of follow-up in the program’s early days was all too typical of what conservatives often charge, that government “throws money at a problem” without bothering to see if it has done any good or where it might be improved.
Today, poverty is still with us, but it is too simplistic to say poverty “won,” as Ronald Reagan insisted.
Among the most obvious successes were in programs for the elderly, for whom poverty fell from 35 percent in 1959 to below 10 percent in 2010, according to government figures.
Medicare and Medicaid, both LBJ creations, increased access to health care among the elderly and reduced financial risks to them and their families.
Child poverty is still a much tougher matter. Yet, despite continuing debate over the effectiveness of Head Start and Job Corps, even President Reagan praised both programs and boosted their funding.
Without the LBJ-era expansion of food stamps and other nutrition programs, child poverty would have been three points higher in 2010, according to Jane Waldfogel and other researchers at Columbia University.
And you don’t need a scientific study to tell you that without food stamps, subsidized school lunches and the earned-income tax credit, which provides extra money to household heads earning low wages, poverty would be far worse.
A half-century later, I can see the old poverty problem with a new clarity. For one thing, I can see that the best poverty fighter is a robust economy like the one we had in the 1990s, when poverty and crime rates declined to their lowest since the LBJ era.
Simple liberal wealth-redistribution alone is a worse remedy than smart economic policies to address structural changes in our industrial economy.
We also can’t resolve the poverty problem without also addressing the breakdown of marriage among low-income families as a problem that effect families of all races.
Family structure was much-debated after LBJ aide Daniel P. Moynihan’s 1965 report on the African-American family. Conservative Charles Murray’s more recent book “Coming Apart,” details how the pathologies of family dysfunction that Moynihan revealed also have been growing since the 1950s among working class white households, too, especially for those who lack schooling beyond high school.
Such were the problems that my Upward Bound unit was trying to address among kids from families that, in that region, were mostly white. It was a time of emerging new realities of structural economic change: Industrial jobs, like the steel mill where I worked my way through school, were becoming automated or moving overseas.
If you didn’t have at least some college or technical schooling beyond high school in the emerging new, post-industrial American economy, we told our bright young charges, your chances for income gains were shrinking.
The fight against poverty became distracted by the turbulent racial politics of the 1960s. It’s time to get ourselves back on track.

Clarence Page’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services. Email him as cpage@tribune.com. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.