Popular opinion, beginning over twenty-five years ago, presses me to believe that the domestic policy of President Lyndon Johnson, including the Great Society and his "War on Poverty," was an almost absolute failure.
While the program was not perfect, it was anything but a bust from an historic point of view. No doubt, there were abuses, but not at the scale or extent that the propaganda machine unleashed by Ronald Reagan would have had us believe. Reagan's "welfare Cadillac" image pushed the nation to the right, even though the details of his story turned out to be the stuff of classic urban myth.
The most negative aspect of Johnson's war on the systemic forces that made and kept people poor was the simple fact that it was interrupted by the dramatic escalation of another war--the one in Viet Nam. Budget constraints basically ended the former "conflict" in favor of the latter.
The economic statistics tracking poverty substantiate this picture. While it must be admitted that other economic forces were at work during the period in question, no serious student of the era questions the impact of much of Johnson's work in reigning in poverty both in terms of the actual number of poor people and the percentage of the population trapped in poverty.
In 1963, when LBJ became President, over 35 million Americans were classified as poor. By the time Johnson left office well under 25 million Americans fit the category--a net decline in raw numbers of well over 10 million Americans. Expressed another way, during Johnson's watch, the poverty rolls declined approximately 32%.
Viewed as a percentage of the total population, roughly 20% were poor when he became President and about 12% remained poor when he left the White House.
After the Johnson years the poverty index, both in raw numbers and in percentage of the whole, remained fairly stable. Then in mid-1978 the indicators began a sharp ascent. By the end of President Reagan's first term over 35 million Americans knew poverty firsthand. The numbers peaked again to pre-1960 levels in 1993 under President Clinton and then began a sharp descent during the boom of the mid to late-1990s, falling back to just over 30 million and just over 10% of the population.
Since 2001, the poverty numbers have been growing again. At mid-year 2003, 35.9 million or 12.5% of our neighbors were considered poor.
Say what you will about LBJ. His domestic economic programs, coupled with his aggressive civil rights efforts, made a difference in the problem of poverty in the nation.
Not a popular idea these days, but we could do worse than reviewing his strategy to see what value might be rediscovered and applied to our current challenge.
The Messiness of Ministry
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