Greta de Jong: Who Lost the War on Poverty?

You Can't eat Freedom by Greta de Jong

We welcome a guest post from Greta de Jong, author of You Can’t Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement. Two revolutions roiled the rural South after the mid-1960s: the political revolution wrought by the passage of civil rights legislation, and the ongoing economic revolution brought about by increasing agricultural mechanization. In You Can’t Eat Freedom, de Jong focuses on the plantation regions of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. She analyzes how social justice activists responded to mass unemployment by lobbying political leaders, initiating antipoverty projects, and forming cooperative enterprises that fostered economic and political autonomy. These efforts encountered strong opposition from free market proponents who opposed government action to solve the crisis.

In the following post de Jong explores successes and failures of the war on poverty.

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For President Lyndon B. Johnson and his advisors in the 1960s, poverty was a national embarrassment. In the richest nation on earth, at the height of the ideological struggle between communism and capitalism that dominated U.S. foreign policy in the mid-twentieth century, the 40 million Americans living without adequate food, clothing, or shelter provided troubling evidence of the failures of free enterprise. Johnson believed the United States could do better, leading him to declare an “unconditional war on poverty” in his State of the Union address of January 1964. A few months later, Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act, which authorized new federal initiatives designed to attack the problem on multiple fronts: adult education and job training, youth employment programs, economic development initiatives, expanded access to public assistance, and community action programs that encouraged citizens to work together in solving social problems at the local level.

For President Ronald Reagan and his supporters in the 1980s, poverty was a matter of individual choice. They viewed programs that assisted poor people as fruitless attempts to fix a problem that was beyond government control. Private enterprise and giving free rein to market forces would create jobs and distribute resources more efficiently than the politicians and bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., they argued. They saw the War on Poverty as a misguided experiment that wasted billions of dollars on trying to help people who were too lazy or stupid to succeed on their own. In his State of the Union address in 1988, Reagan dismissed antipoverty efforts by noting, “The Federal Government declared war on poverty, and poverty won.”

For poor people in the 1960s and the 1980s, poverty was more than a political abstraction. It was the space they navigated each day between subsistence and starvation, scrabbling to secure the basic necessities of life. After touring some of the nation’s most economically depressed regions in 1967, Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman reported to President Johnson that he had seen “dozens of miserable hovels, South and North, where families live in shocking poverty. . . . It matches in some instances the worst I have seen in less developed countries around the world.” The problems were especially acute in rural southern counties, where agricultural mechanization and economic reprisals against the civil rights movement combined to displace thousands of sharecroppers from their jobs and homes. Faced with the threat of black political empowerment in the wake of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, southern political leaders restricted access to social welfare programs and did little to address rampant unemployment, hoping that this would force jobless workers to leave the region and dilute black voting strength. The War on Poverty interfered with these plans, leading to conflicts between supporters and opponents of antipoverty efforts that had lasting consequences, not just for rural black southerners but for other Americans as well.

Poverty may have won in the end, but this outcome was not inevitable. Innovative projects sponsored by the federal government in the 1960s put poor people to work providing needed services in their communities and helped to lift many participants into the middle class. At the Tufts-Delta Health Center in Mississippi, for example, former farm laborers were trained and hired as nurses, nutritionists, social workers, office managers, and administrators, opening avenues to careers that most could not have dreamed of before. Health associations made up of local residents discussed and analyzed how to solve community problems, leading to the formation of a cooperative vegetable farm that employed and provided food for hungry people. Health center staff also encouraged political participation by poor people in the service area, challenging elected officials who had long neglected the needs of low-income residents.

Despite such successes, or more likely because of them, the War on Poverty faced sustained resistance from political and business leaders who feared its disruptive effects. The barrage of accusations and misinformation presented by unsympathetic observers may represent an early example of fact-free politics, designed to denigrate and destroy antipoverty initiatives by portraying them as expensive, ineffective, and loaded with corruption. The perception that the federal government was wasting taxpayers’ money on programs that had proven useless was one of the factors that fueled Reagan’s rise to power and legitimized cuts in spending on social programs, job training, and economic development.

For millions of Americans who lost their jobs to deindustrialization and globalization in the late twentieth century, this surrender to poverty was disastrous. The physical toll is evident in the high rates of unemployment, hunger, drug addiction, and suicide that afflict dying towns and rural communities across the nation. At another level, the loss of political imagination that fostered experiments like the Tufts-Delta Health Center has constricted policy makers’ ability to deal with mass joblessness and rising inequality in the twenty-first century. In that sense, we all lost the War on Poverty.

Greta de Jong is associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno. She is author of You Can’t Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement (2016) and A Different Day: African American Struggles for Justice in Rural Louisiana, 1900-1970 (2002).