The Economic Opportunity Act, 50 Years Later: We Need Renewed Presidential Leadership

When President Lyndon Johnson signed his “war on poverty” legislation 50 years ago on August 20, 1964, America had a different view of itself, of poverty, even a different political lexicon.  The differences are especially vivid to those of us who have spent much of the intervening half century working to stem the tide of increased hunger and poverty, but never again with a level of presidential support commensurate to LBJ’s, nor with the same optimism and confidence of the American public.

At least since President Ronald Reagan quipped that “we fought a war on poverty and poverty won” it’s been politically incorrect for politicians of either political party to go near the issue, even with 22% of America’s children now living below the poverty line.

To appreciate how different things are, just look at LBJ’s barnstorming across the country in the spring and summer of 1964 to rally support for his Economic Opportunity Act.

Less than 6 months after President John Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson, in a lunchtime speech to the League of Women Voters in Pittsburgh put the power of the presidency on the line, saying: “We have declared unconditional war on poverty. Our objective is total victory.”

Politically, Johnson was seeking to shore up his support among JFK’s liberal supporters who were suspect of his worthiness.  But it was personal too. He’d grown up the son of a tenant farmer in a family of seven and remembered the sting of neighbors bringing needed food to his hill country home.

Those years before Vietnam, Watergate, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and race riots, were still a time when anything seemed possible. America had pulled through the Great Depression, triumphed in World War II, stared down the Soviets over missiles in Cuba, and created a secure and growing middle class.  Sargent Shriver, Johnson’s choice to run the War on Poverty, remembered: “When a War on Poverty was launched, in terms just like the war against Hitler, we were accustomed to thinking in terms of the United States being able to do big things. America bestrode the world like a Colossus.”

Back then the middle class was so secure it didn’t need to be called out, shored up, pandered to, or put on a pedestal.


What Johnson didn’t say is telling in and of itself.  In speeches around the country throughout the spring and summer the president never uttered the words “middle class”. Today the “middle class” is a non-negotiable touchstone for all political rhetoric; but back then it was so secure it didn’t need to be called out, shored up, pandered to, or put on a pedestal.

Less than a year after Johnson began making the case for the Economic Opportunity Act he signed it into law.  The legislation created Head Start, Job Corps, and Community Action Agencies, along with an expansion of social security benefits, the establishment of food stamps, and Title I legislation to subsidize low-income schools. Though not perfect, these initiatives lifted millions of Americans out of poverty and they still do.

Congressional majorities and unity following JFK’s assassination gave Johnson the luxury of political breathing room.  But in just a few years that breathing room began to shrink. Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter would confront Watergate’s abuse of power and the constraints of inflation, gasoline shortages, the Iranian hostage crisis and diminished confidence in government. After Johnson, there would be good intentions and nods in the direction of ending poverty, but no risk of political capital.

The fight against poverty did not end, but for many people the battleground shifted. Social entrepreneurs took up the mantle and a new generation of activists found an outlet in innovative nonprofit organizations like the Harlem Children’s Zone, Teach For America, Communities in Schools, and KaBoom—all of which focus on aspects of economic inequality.  Some, like Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign, seek to leverage the best of the Johnson era programs, ensuring access and participation in things that have proven effective, like the school breakfast program and SNAP.  But such private efforts can only go so far.

At the Rose Garden bill signing ceremony Johnson said, “We will reach into all the pockets of poverty and help our people find their footing for a long climb toward a better way of life.”  That climb has turned out to be steeper than LBJ or anyone else might have imagined.  Though the War on Poverty significantly reduced the poverty rate in America, there are still 46 million of us—more than 15 percent—who live below the poverty line.

To complete the journey, we await renewed presidential leadership.





In Our Backyard: A Golden Opportunity for Affordable Housing

“Our affordable housing issues are directly related to our progress. We developed areas that weren’t developed—we’re attracting a lot of people. When there’s more demand, the prices go up. That’s why it’s important that the government does what it can do in that marketplace.”

–Muriel Bowser, D.C. Councilmember representing Ward 4

Progress is certainly subjective.

While Washington, D.C. has indeed succeeded in attracting a lot of young, affluent professionals, its elected leaders have also presided over the loss of half of the city’s low-cost rental units. This decline in the availability of affordable housing has contributed greatly to a large increase in homelessness. Moreover, as the city’s residents and elected officials grapple with the housing issue, the voices of the homeless aren’t being heard.

Take, for example, the increase in homelessness which undermined the integrity of the D.C. shelter system. In 2010, there were allegations that male shelter workers at D.C. General Hospital were having sex with female residents. Residents complained that they were exposed to mold and forced to sleep in hallways due to overcrowding. In order to prepare for an expected 10% increase in the need for shelter, then-Mayor Adrian Fenty proposed an alternative—he wanted to covert the vacant Hebrew Home for the Aged into a family shelter. The Hebrew Home had housed Jewish retirees from 1925 to 1969. It was then purchased by the city and used for medical services for the homeless until 2008.

To ensure that economic diversity is more than a talking point, city leaders must address the affordable housing crisis.

The Department of Human Services identified the Hebrew Home as the “best facility” to provide this alternative housing. But residents of the neighborhood resisted the proposal, and so did their representative on the D.C. Council, Muriel Bowser.  Many residents claimed that it would negatively affect property values and public safety, and Bowser said that the neighborhood would have an “inordinate amount of group homes.”

Even though there was widespread knowledge about the troubles at D.C. General and the shortage of shelter space, the proposal to convert the Hebrew Home was defeated.  The situation at D.C. General has deteriorated even further, with more overcrowding, and culminated in the horrific murder of an eight-year-old girl.

We can only wonder what might have been if the Hebrew Home had housed homeless families instead of remaining vacant in a time of crisis.


Four years later, the city once again has an opportunity to create much needed affordable housing at the Hebrew Home site.

On Tuesday, D.C. residents attended a community meeting organized and moderated by Bowser and offered their views on the still vacant site as well as the adjacent Paul Robeson School. Progressive organizations such as Jews United for Justice and the Petworth Action Committee support turning the building into 100% affordable housing. In contrast, Councilmember Bowser indicated her preference that the building also include market-rent units.

The meeting was heavily attended by affordable housing advocates, and the majority of speakers supported a large number of affordable units. However, there also remains an unyielding group of residents who want majority market-rate housing. Playing on stereotypes and fears about low-income people and public housing, this group is falsely claiming that the D.C. government has already pledged to turn the building into “public housing.”

Unfortunately, the City’s official “consultation system” gives more weight to the opinions of this group than to those held by low-income people. To gauge the views of the neighborhood, the District’s Department of General Services (DGS) employed an online survey instrument—Survey Monkey—that is inaccessible to many low-income people and seniors. It also didn’t restrict the number of times a person could respond.  Although the government will also consider opinions expressed at community meetings, even those forums aren’t geared towards accessibility for all District citizens.

As Rob Wohl, a member of Jews United for Justice, told TalkPoverty:

“The way that the city does this consultation process is completely broken and easily hijacked. It’s a joke the extent to which the process privileges people who have access to whatever resources and free time. It’s rigged against low-income people, seniors, and people with families that can’t come. I’ve never been to a DC community meeting where there’s childcare.  If this is our consultative process, it’s outrageous that they made no accommodations for poor families whatsoever.”

Despite the lack of outreach to low-income people, support for affordable housing for seniors and D.C. employees was high in the survey results.  Kim, a resident who has lived in Petworth for over 45 years, commented:

“A lot of people aren’t concerned about the people who fought. Have you been over to the senior housing centers? They have a waiting list. What’s going to happen to the low-income people i.e. the seniors?”

Unfortunately—and likely due to the lack of input by low-income people—there was very little support for housing that would benefit homeless families and individuals. Even among the affordable housing advocates present, there was little discussion of the homeless, especially families living in D.C. General.

Repeatedly, the needs of the most vulnerable people among us have been minimized during the housing debate. To ensure that economic diversity is more than a talking point, city leaders must address the affordable housing crisis. The city should commit to more outreach to low-income individuals before any decisions are made regarding the Hebrew Home and the Robeson School.

Ultimately, the city should make sure that the public property it controls is used for affordable housing as opposed to simply selling properties to developers who are looking to profit off of predominantly market-rate housing. (Recent legislation, originally introduced by Councilmembers Bonds, Bowser, Graham, and McDuffie, would further this goal.) Despite concerns expressed at the meeting surrounding financing of the property, city officials and housing financing experts confirm that it is indeed possible to finance buildings comprised of 100% affordable units.

As one resident, Nina Marshall, put it:

“I hope we don’t blow this opportunity to build affordable housing in our community.”




What We’re Reading

Welcome back to What We’re Reading, where we share must-read articles about poverty in America that grapple with critical issues, inspire us to action, challenge us, and push us to see both problems and solutions from new angles.

Working Anything but 9 to 5 by Jodi Kantor and Sam Hodgson (New York Times)

Last month, she was scheduled to work until 11 p.m. on Friday, July 4; report again just hours later, at 4 a.m. on Saturday; and start again at 5 a.m. on Sunday. She braced herself to ask her aunt, Karina Rivera, to watch Gavin, hoping she would not explode in annoyance, or worse, refuse. She vowed to somehow practice for the driving test that she had promised her boyfriend she would pass by the previous month.

Thanks to campaigns in San Francisco and across the country, more people are aware that irregular, part-time work hours and poverty go hand in hand. Kantor and Hodgson provide a window into the dizzying schedule of Janette Navarro, a Starbucks barista and single mother. It’s easy to see how Navarro’s schedule creates “logistical puzzles” that strain family relationships, jeopardize her son’s spot in daycare, and even cause her to become homeless. Kantor and Hodgson explain why erratic scheduling has become so widespread. One huge culprit is new technology adopted by corporations like Starbucks to keep staffing levels at utmost efficiency, at the expense of worker wellbeing.

Michael Brown and Black Men by Charles M. Blow (New York Times)

Brown had just finished high school and was to start college this week. […] But it is clear even now that his killing occurred in a context, one that we would do well to recognize. Brown’s mother told a local television station after he was killed just weeks after his high school graduation: “Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many. Because you bring them down to this type of level, where they feel like they don’t got nothing to live for anyway […]”

As Blow states, a key reason why 18-year-old Michael Brown’s shooting is so devastating is that it has a “sense of tragedy too often repeated.” The killings of unarmed black and brown youth like Michael Brown are not just random accidents. These tragedies are rooted in our racially biased institutions and power structures. According to Blow, we need to take a step back and examine the data on how America criminalizes people of color, beginning in school and leading to prison. As early as preschool, black and Latino students are suspended at much higher rates than white students. These disparities continue throughout the life course, shaping “truly horrific” high school graduation rates, arrest rates, and imprisonment rates.

American Mayors Pledge to Fight Income Inequality, Low Wages by Erin Carlyle (Forbes)

The numbers underscore what seems to be constant news these days: despite record levels of corporate profitability, American wages remain stagnant. That is one of several factors creating a growing income gap between the poor and the affluent: tax policy is another big one. “When we go back 30 years, we lost our way,” said Paul Soglin, mayor of Madison, Wisc. “Mistakenly we thought that tax breaks to export jobs overseas was the way to build this country’s economy.”

As Neil Irwin reported last week, business forecasters recognize that America’s rising inequality is hindering economic growth. Big city mayors, from Michael Nutter of Philadelphia to Anise Parker of Houston, have arrived at the same conclusion. On Monday, the U.S. Conferences of Mayors released grim findings on income inequality. Jobs created during the Recovery pay an average of $47,171, a far cry from $61,637—the average wage of jobs lost during the Recession. 36 mayors signed a pledge to address income inequality. Of course, the million-dollar question is how?

How Obama Suddenly Became Pro-Worker by Dave Jamieson (Huffington Post)

“This outside agitation has really helped push the president to do the right thing,” Paco Fabian, a spokesman for Change to Win, which includes the Service Employees International Union, said recently. “And he certainly deserves credit. For the first time in a long time we have a president taking executive action to help workers.”

American workers saw some significant wins in the past year. In 2014, President Obama signed executive orders to raise the federal contractor minimum wage to $10.10, protect federal contractor employees from LGBT discrimination, and require that federal contractors report labor law violations to crack down on wage theft. While these measures are important first steps, they only reach one segment of the workforce—about 1-in-5 workers. Jamieson analyzes the strengths and weaknesses inherent in Obama’s use of executive orders. One pro: policy reforms can still be enacted in a time of Congressional gridlock. One con: these reforms can be rolled back with a new president.

A Tale of Two Maternity Leaves by Darlena Cunha (Washington Post)

Rebecca Carparros works for the Federal Government. “I have to work, and I was only able to stay home with my first daughter five weeks,” she said. “For my second, I managed to get six weeks. I could have used FMLA and gotten eight weeks, but I can’t afford weeks off unpaid.” Contrast this with dual-citizen Tiffiny Rossi’s experience in Finland. She had a baby in April 2013, and is still on maternity leave. In fact, her paid leave will last until January 2015.

The United States “prides itself on its family values,” yet stands as an extreme outlier in its lack of guaranteed paid family leave. Only 11% of American workers receive paid family leave. Cunha details the ways that working mothers in the majority are forced to cope, such as returning to work when their babies are not ready, attempting to go on short-term disability, and even Internet crowdfunding.  At the same time, Cunha reminds us that better models are available. New mothers and fathers in Finland are guaranteed paid leave until their baby is 9 months old, and one parent can stay on home leave until the child is 3, without fear of losing their job. And yes, Finland’s businesses and taxpayers are doing just fine.

To keep up with our reading list throughout the week, like TalkPoverty on Facebook and follow us on Twitter (@TalkPoverty). You can also sign up for weekly emails on the homepage.




Communities, Individuals, and the Long Fight Against Poverty

Today, the nation confronts an unacceptable poverty rate of 15 percent. Of course, the conditions that people in poverty contend with—such as overcrowded and inadequate housing, not enough food, lack of opportunities for work, homelessness—these are not new.  So as we approach the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Economic Opportunity Act on August 20, 1964 —the centerpiece of the War on Poverty—it’s a good time to reflect not only on Johnson’s policies but also the many earlier efforts by activists to reduce poverty in our nation.

The Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness (ICPH) in New York City has published a book (which I co-authored with ICPH president Ralph da Costa Nunez), and launched a companion website,, to tell the history of poverty and homelessness in New York City.  These resources demonstrate what has been accomplished in the century-long struggle against poverty and also the work that remains.

To a degree, anti-poverty strategies focus on either assisting individuals or lifting communities. Johnson’s War on Poverty, for example, took a decidedly community-centered approach to confronting policy. While some of its greatest successes were policies targeting individuals—like Medicare and Medicaid and SNAP—at the core of the Economic Opportunity Act was the Community Action Program, an effort to provide greater individual opportunity by reviving entire communities.

Here are a few snapshots of other poverty warriors from our past.

Our poverty warriors have made great strides in the fight against poverty over the last century

The Progressives                                                

Community played a central role for this generation of reformers that came of age between 1890 and 1920.  They viewed neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty, substandard housing, and contagious disease as both a cause and effect of continuing destitution among families in poverty.  For this group, later called progressives, the solution lay in strengthening both neighborhood institutions and state interventions.

In the Progressive Era, settlement houses embodied the idea of community-based poverty relief. First established in London in the 1880s, settlements proliferated in U.S. cities over the end of the 19th century and into the first decade of the 20th century. At places such as Hull House in Chicago, and Henry Street Settlement or Greenwich House in New York, young men and women from the middle class came to live, assist, and learn about poor communities. A focus on community infused everything that these settlement workers did. Some of the work was cultural such as providing concerts, lectures, and art exhibits for the neighborhood. But much of the work was about providing direct assistance to poor and working class families, including: medical care, day care, kindergarten, and after-school programs so parents could find work.  The reformers also sponsored neighborhood clubs and organizations to help residents focus attention on the problems confronting their communities.

Settlements also became centers of reform. Workers collected extensive data on their communities and their expertise was central in efforts to end child labor, improve housing conditions, and provide state support for widowed or deserted mothers. In calling for these reforms, settlement workers tried to rally their neighbors to get involved, consistent with their missions as community-based organizations.

The New Dealers

The New Dealers of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration—many of whom had participated in the Progressive Movement—confronted a crisis of unprecedented widespread unemployment and poverty, the Great Depression. Their focus was on relief to those in need, a return to economic growth, and reforms that would prevent poverty in the future. The Roosevelt administration passed wide-reaching legislation to stabilize the economy, ensure protections for workers including the right to organize, and facilitate homeownership. These programs laid the foundation for an expanded middle class after World War II.

At the same time, the New Deal needed to create specific mechanisms to assist families and individuals confronting poverty. Programs such as the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the Works Progress Administration provided temporary assistance to unemployed people during the Depression.  The Social Security Act of 1935 provided a more permanent response to economic vicissitudes and remains one of our greatest pieces of legislation for fighting poverty through today. It offered new federal assistance to the elderly, and created the system of Old Age Insurance that we now call Social Security, which has led to a marked decrease in poverty among the elderly. It also provided federal support for unemployment insurance to prevent hardship in future economic downturns. The Act also contained Aid to Dependent Children (later Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC)—a program that provided assistance to widowed and deserted mothers. The bill included no general assistance for poor individuals, but Aid to Dependent Children—while never generous and subject to the limitations of each state—would help countless families.

The Fight Today

Today, our poverty programs are a mix of both individually-focused policies and community-based approaches.  There are more than 46 million SNAP recipients, and the program kept nearly 5 million people out of poverty last year; in 2012, 26.2 million tax filers received the EITC, and it kept 6.5 million people out of poverty; and a flawed TANF provides assistance to more than 1.5 million families a month. At the same time, many community action agencies and settlement houses continue to provide focused assistance to their local neighborhoods. Programs funded through the Community Development Block Grant, and efforts like the Obama administration’s Promise Neighborhoods, are also attempts to strengthen communities in ways that alleviate poverty.

Yet, as Elizabeth Kneebone of Brookings has recently reported, poverty became more concentrated over the 2000s. The solution must be more coordinated individual and community-based antipoverty programs that provide assistance and also the resources—jobs that pay good wages, housing, transportation, access to education, social services, to name a few—that would resuscitate floundering urban neighborhoods and suburban towns.

Our poverty warriors have made great strides in the fight against poverty over the last century.  Today, through both individual and community-based tactics, it’s time for our next great advance.




A New Social Contract for the 21st Century

In the 50 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared an “unconditional war on poverty in America,” our nation’s system of work and income supports has protected millions of families from poverty, mitigated hardship, and promoted economic opportunity. Programs such as Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Head Start, to name just a few, have made a difference in the lives of millions of Americans. They have also proven important buffers against recessions, promoting economic recovery during periods of high unemployment and ensuring that households don’t cut back on their spending to such a degree that even more workers lose their jobs.

Yet much has changed in the past 50 years. Demographic shifts, insufficient access to jobs that pay decent wages, and an economy that increasingly serves only the wealthy few pose a new set of challenges. Meanwhile, several components of our system of work and income supports have grown weaker and been cut back—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, is the poster child of this troubling trend—and today far too few individuals and families get the help they need and deserve in hard times.

While some paint poverty as something that only happens to flawed people, in reality it’s something most of us will encounter at some point in our lives.

Too bad, but this is all someone else’s problem, right?


As my colleague Melissa Boteach points out in her column published earlier this week, four out of five Americans will experience at least one year of significant economic insecurity—defined as living in poverty or near-poverty, or needing to turn to unemployment insurance or another form of public assistance—at some point during their working years. Yep, you read that right: four out of five.  Perhaps even more staggering: half of us will experience three years or more of significant economic insecurity.

While poverty might be a condition we associate with “other people,” just take a look at the most common precipitating factors: Job loss. Birth of a child. Illness. These are life events that could hit any of us. While some paint poverty as something that only happens to flawed people, or a condition affecting a stagnant, marginalized minority, in reality it’s something most of us will encounter at some point in our lives. As Dr. Mark Rank, whose research yielded those staggering findings, wrote in the New York Times: “Put simply, poverty is a mainstream event experienced by a majority of Americans.”

In the coming months, the Center for American Progress poverty team will explore policies that strengthen and modernize our nation’s safety net, and promote economic mobility for families on the brink. Since we’re all in this together, shouldn’t we ensure that our social contract provides adequate protection amid the ups and downs of life?