Susan Page, USA Today
WASHINGTON - Fifty years later, LBJ's audacious promise in his first State of the Union address may be resounding again.
Jan. 8, 1964, just seven weeks after John F. Kennedy's assassination
propelled him into the Oval Office, Lyndon B. Johnson described to a
Joint Session of Congress the plight of Americans who "live on the
outskirts of hope" because of poverty or race. "This administration
today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America,"
he declared in his Texas twang, voice rising. Medicare, Medicaid, Head
Start and more would follow in a historic rush of legislation.
issues of economic fairness and opportunity once again are fueling a
more vocal populism, setting a more liberal Democratic agenda and
prompting alternative proposals from some leading Republicans. In his
own State of the Union address this month, President Obama is expected
to call for raising the minimum wage, extending long-term unemployment
benefits and addressing the dramatically widening gap between the rich
and everybody else.
Speaking at a community center in one of the
poorest neighborhoods of the capital last month, he called it "the
defining challenge of our time." On Capitol Hill Wednesday, California
Rep. Barbara Lee will launch a series of 50 speeches in 50 days on the
House floor by Democratic members to honor LBJ's campaign and rekindle a
national effort against poverty.
"I think income inequality has
really hit a nerve, a political nerve," Joseph Califano, LBJ's top White
House domestic policy adviser, says approvingly. He notes the populist
priorities outlined last week in the inaugural address by New York Mayor
Bill de Blasio, the most liberal mayor in at least two decades in the
nation's largest city. "I think we're going to see a revival of programs
really designed to give the poor a lift."
To be sure, there's
little prospect Obama will be able to push through major legislation in
short order the way Johnson did in the 1960s, utilizing big Democratic
majorities in both houses of Congress, his legendary legislative skill
and the nation's resolve in the wake of JFK's death. From the 1964 State
of the Union address until he left office five years later, Johnson
would sign into law landmark measures that extended civil rights
protections and established safety net programs. (His presidency also
would become mired in the expanding Vietnam War.)
in the Senate have been struggling to restore long-term jobless benefits
that lapsed just after Christmas. The reception in the GOP-controlled
House is likely to be even less hospitable. Speaker John Boehner says
Democrats first must find ways to offset the $6.5 billion cost of a
Whether the legislation passes or not, the
debate is putting a spotlight on an emerging set of issues and forcing
candidates in midterm elections to take positions on them.
energy on the Democratic left is offering a stronger offset to the Tea
Party movement on the right. It has shifted the discussion on programs
such as Social Security; long a target for cuts, some Democrats now
argue retirement benefits should be raised. And it is altering the
landscape for the 2016 presidential election, and not just for
Democrats. Republican presidential prospects Rep. Paul Ryan of
Wisconsin, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida
each have proposed approaches to combat poverty, though they generally
reject LBJ's reliance on government.
"The tectonic plates of our
politics have shifted in the last few years," says Sen. Chuck Schumer,
D-N.Y. "Our politics are changing, and the issues which have dominated
our politics in the past - both Obamacare and the deficit - are not
unimportant, but these types of issues may now supersede them."
set the goal high. "It will not be a short or easy struggle; no single
weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is
won," he declared in his speech, 50 years ago Wednesday. "The richest
nation on Earth can afford to win it."
New Hampshire Gov. Maggie
Hassan, though just a young girl at the time, remembers the excitement
and determination of that era from her father, Robert Coldwell Wood, a
political scientist and Kennedy adviser who led the task force that
recommended Johnson establish a new Department of Housing and Urban
Development. Wood served as HUD's first undersecretary and briefly
headed the department in the closing weeks of the Johnson
"What he always stressed with me was that every
American should have a chance to succeed, and it's important we not let
people get marginalized by circumstances," Hassan said in an interview.
Those are lessons she says she applies today in efforts to expand
Medicaid and improve mental health services in New Hampshire.
fact that poverty wasn't vanquished then and persists today has provided
ammunition for those who say the goal was impossible or the wrong tools
were chosen to reach it. "In the '60s, we waged a war on poverty, and
poverty won," then-president Ronald Reagan quipped. Rubio, who has
scheduled a speech in the LBJ Room of the Capitol on Wednesday's
anniversary to discuss lessons from Johnson's crusade, asks, "Isn't it
time to declare big government's war on poverty a failure?"
official poverty rate in the United States, defined as lacking resources
for life's basic needs, was 19% in 1964. It had fallen to 12.1% by
1969, the year Johnson left office. Last year, it stood at 15%, only a
modest decline from the launch of his anti-poverty campaign. Today,
about 50 million Americans, including 13 million children, live below
the poverty line - in 2012 set at $23,492 for a family of four.
experts who study poverty call the official statistics misleading
because they don't take into account non-cash assistance such as rent
subsidies, tax credits and food stamps - the tools now favored over a
welfare check to ameliorate poverty's effects. Using what's called the
Supplemental Poverty Measure, or SPM, researchers at Columbia University
calculate that the poverty rate adjusted for inflation has fallen from
26% in 1967 to 16% today, a more significant decline.
remains high," says Sharon Parrott, vice president of the Center on
Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal Washington think tank. "It's
higher in the United States than in most wealthy nations. We still have
very large racial disparities. So you can't look at this record and say
we are where we want to be or where we hoped to be when the effort was
taken up, but neither is it accurate to say we haven't made significant
The government's safety net programs cut the poverty
rate last year by nearly half, the Census Bureau reports. Without them,
the poverty rate would have been 29% in 2012. Government benefits lifted
41 million people, including 9 million children, out of poverty.
of those programs were launched by LBJ. During his administration, a
pilot program for food stamps became permanent. The federal government
established the Head Start program for preschoolers, began to help
finance elementary and secondary school education, and started college
aid and loan programs. Social Security benefits were raised and Medicare
and Medicaid were created.
"Nobody talked about poverty since
then the way he did," says Califano, who would later serve as secretary
of Health, Education and Welfare in the Carter administration. "Poverty
and civil rights were the driving forces of his presidency." When
Johnson read through speechwriter Ted Sorensen's draft of that first
State of the Union address, he added several words to the key sentence
on poverty - writing in "today" and "here and now" - for emphasis.
devoted time, focus, horse-trading, cajoling and occasionally political
threats to get legislation passed, at times over the fierce opposition
of conservative Southern Democrats who controlled key committees. Now,
Califano says he hopes Obama will follow that example to "get his
fingernails dirty" and exert stronger leadership than he has to date. He
likened Obama's reluctance to engage with Congress with another former
boss, Jimmy Carter.
"We are a presidential nation," Califano says.
"The president is as much at fault as the Congress in Congress not
doing anything. Congress will only work with a very strong president,
whether it's Theodore Roosevelt or Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson -
three great eras of progressive programs."
50 days, 50 speeches
Wednesday, LBJ's daughter, Lynda Johnson Robb, is slated to be on
Capitol Hill to mark the 50th anniversary with leaders of the
Congressional Black Caucus and other top Democrats. Then, in the first
of 50 commemorative speeches on the House floor, Rep. Lee says she will
urge Americans "to create a Great Society once again."
tell a story from her own life. As the young single mother of two
children, she relied on food stamps and California's Medicaid program,
called MediCal, to enable her to go to college. "If it hadn't been for
that bridge over troubled waters," she says, "I don't know where I'd
Meanwhile, some Republicans also are talking about poverty,
although they're offering different prescriptions to combat it. Rubio
said reducing the budget deficit and the debt would help generate
middle-class jobs; he also called for repealing the Affordable Care Act
and strengthening retirement programs. In a speech last month to the
Detroit Economic Club, Paul said the best way to help struggling cities
and the poor people who live in them was to cut taxes.
and nature of poverty have shifted in the past half-century. A report
issued Monday by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities details some
trends that have helped reduce poverty since 1964. More adults have
completed high school and more women work outside the home - from about
four in 10 in 1964 to nearly two-thirds now. Families have fewer
But other developments have kept poverty high. The
percentage of men who have jobs has fallen from 87% then to 74% now. The
number of households led by a single parent has more than tripled, to
And a significant change: Income inequality has soared. The
share of income that goes to the top 1% has more than doubled, from 10%
in 1964 to 22% in 2012, according to data analyzed by economist Emmanuel
Saez. Income inequality, now the highest in a century, stoked the
Occupy Wall Street protests and the current debate.
inaugural address as mayor of New York, de Blasio called the growing
income gap a "quiet crisis" as "pernicious" as crime and terrorism. "We
are called to put an end to economic and social inequalities that
threaten to unravel the city we love," he declared. Outgoing mayor
Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman, sat stone-faced nearby.
American people are angry; they are hurting; they are sick and tired of
Wall Street and the very rich becoming richer while the middle class
disappears," says Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a political
independent who caucuses with the Democrats. He says income and wealth
inequality have "reached obscene proportions."
Says Califano, "My
own hunch, I think we're seeing the seeds of another populist time
coming. It's not only the 99% versus the 1%. It's the fear that the
middle class has of slipping into poverty. There are a lot of people on