It has been 50 years since Lyndon Johnson first declared that the nation could, “for the first time in our history,” conquer and win a war on poverty, pledging a “total commitment by this President, and this Congress, and this nation, to pursue victory over the most ancient of mankind’s enemies.” In the years that followed, lawmakers weaved a social safety net that still endures to this day, providing educational opportunities for low income Americans, retirement and health care security to the low income and elderly, and food assistance to the hungry.
Through the 1930s and 40s, most national politicians embraced welfare policies, since the federal programs of the New Deal — the 1935 Social Security Act and other initiatives — excluded the black population and were largely seen as acceptable by the white majority. But following World War II and the rise of the Civil Rights movement, welfare programs opened to African Americans, triggering a counterattack from conservatives in both political parties who sought to portray these programs as wasteful, unnecessary, and encouraging government dependence.
Beginning in 1964 and stretching through today, conservative leaders systematically undermined the programs that shaped Johnson’s War on Poverty, frequently deploying racist and sexist arguments to take away public assistance from the poorest Americans. Their rhetoric didn’t directly undo these social programs, but it chipped away at their foundation and altered Americans’ perceptions about the proper role of government. ThinkProgress spoke to six American historians of the Johnson era about the evolution of racist and sexist attacks against social welfare programs, some of which can still be heard in the debates in Washington today.
Reagan: “She wanted a divorce to get an 80 dollar raise.”
In 1964, Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act, establishing the Office of Economic Opportunity, to run Johnson’s “community action program.” The initiative established a “community action agency” in each city and county to coordinate all federal and state programs designed to help the poor. Most Republicans voted against the effort, arguing that “it would be wasted money, it would be used as pork,” Michael Katz, a University of Pennsylvania professor and the author of The Undeserving Poor: America’s Enduring Confrontation with Poverty, explained. With the Republicans united against it, Johnson pushed through the program by appealing to southern Democrats who were very fearful of any federal program, “but who had very poor white constituents and saw that as a benefit,” Julian Zelizer, a professor of history at Princeton University said. “In the end, the initial War on Poverty was passed not with Republicans, but around them.”
Afterward, Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater ran his 1964 presidential campaign against Johnson’s War on Poverty, criticizing it for being wasteful and filled with programs that weren’t going to work. Ronald Reagan, who travelled the country campaigning for Goldwater, put it succinctly in a rousing 1964 speech. “The Founding Fathers knew a government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose.” In the same address, titled A Time Of Choosing, Reagan tapped into the anxieties about the role of women during that day, suggesting that they would divorce their husbands to receive more government assistance:
Now — so now we declare “war on poverty”… But seriously, what are we doing to those we seek to help? Not too long ago, a judge called me here in Los Angeles. He told me of a young woman who’d come before him for a divorce. She had six children, was pregnant with her seventh. Under his questioning, she revealed her husband was a laborer earning 250 dollars a month. She wanted a divorce to get an 80 dollar raise. She’s eligible for 330 dollars a month in the Aid to Dependent Children Program. She got the idea from two women in her neighborhood who’d already done that very thing.
“The image is not just of poverty, the image is of moral depravity,” Jeremi Suri of The University of Texas at Austin noted. “The presumption in Reagan’s rhetoric, and it’s not too below the surface, is that these mothers are single mothers because they’ve done something wrong, so they’re an easy target. It’s easy to make the argument that this woman who [had apparently been] immoral in the way she behaves…and we as a government should not encourage that kind of immoral behavior.”
Late 1960s — Early 1970s
Nixon claims the War on Poverty programs led to race riots, “violence and failure across the land.”
By the late 1960s, as racial riots erupted in the nation’s biggest cities, Republicans and even conservative and liberal Democrats began to characterize Johnson’s programs as wasteful and saw it as the source of racial turmoil. “After 1966, Republicans are accusing the War on Poverty for being the reason for all of the rioting taking place in places like Detroit, arguing that it’s actually causing more problems than it’s solving and part of a law-and-order problem that becomes very big in the 1960s,” Katz says. Conservatives like Reagan and Goldwater seized on the riots to claim that “the cities were free of this kind of unrest before the federal government got involved,” Suri said. “They would argue that many of the riots are centered on areas that are federal housing projects, that are targets for Head Start, areas that have a disproportionate number of families on aid and dependent children, so they would in that sense follow the money,” he added, noting that it’s less a causal relationship and more correlation.
During his speech accepting the 1968 Republican presidential campaign, Richard Nixon talked a lot about a “war at home” and pledged to roll back Johnson’s social programs, which he linked to the social unrest:
For the past five years, we have been deluged by government programs for the unemployed; programs for the cities; programs for the poor. And we have reaped from these programs an ugly harvest of frustration, violence and failure across the land. And now our opponents will be offering more of the same — more billions for government jobs, government housing, government welfare.
Once elected president, Nixon decentralized many of Johnson’s initiatives and offered a new solution that was free of the kind of government meddling that he claimed had contributed to societal unrest, a plan to provide a minimum income to all Americans that did away with the bureaucracy. But the effort ultimately failed and Nixon “tacked hard to the right, at least in terms of his public rhetoric” and vetoed several Democratically-sponsored assistance bills, Annelise Orleck, a professor of history at Dartmouth University, pointed out in The War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History, 1964–1980. Yet ultimately, federal spending on social programs “nearly tripled” during his administration and he “dramatically expanded their reach,” growing public housing, food stamps, and Pell Grants, among other initiatives.
Then the 1973 oil crisis changed everything. Katz described the moment as “a real momentous event in the American psyche. It was kind of a shock that ended an era premised on abundance, on automatic growth, on a pie that was expanding and could be dished out to more and more people.”
The energy crisis, which ran through the rest of the decade, “played right into conservative arguments about the inability of government to solve our national problems,” Meg Jacobs of MIT said. The energy crisis fueled polarization over equal rights and social policy and sparked a flurry of proposals on the floor of Congress to end programs. “In the middle of a shortage of energy, we could no longer afford social policy,” Jacobs noted. Indeed, the crisis became Exhibit A in Reagan’s argument against government dysfunction.
Reagan seizes on “the continued backlash against civil rights” to oppose welfare programs.
By the time he makes a second bid for the White House in 1980, “Reagan really ingeniously pairs [the conservative argument about welfare government dysfunction] with the continued backlash against civil rights,” Orleck said. The candidate kicked off the general campaign at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, not far from where the bodies of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney were found. As Bob Herbert explained, “The case was still a festering sore at that time” as some of the conspirators “were still being protected by the local community. And white supremacy was still the order of the day.” Reagan was the first presidential candidate ever to appear at the fair, and he knew exactly what he was doing when he told that crowd, “I believe in states’ rights.”
Indeed, the characterization built off previous claims that some women, particularly black women, were acting like welfare queens, cheating the system by collecting multiple Social Security and welfare checks, earning an annual income of “over $150,000.”
“In this discussion, every time you hear ‘woman,’ what you’re really hearing is single black woman,” James Galbraith, of the University of Texas, explained. “This was not an effort that was aimed at single white women… The stigmatization was very much targeted at poor women, and on poor black women specifically.”
After securing the presidency, Reagan’s first budget director, David Stockman, bluntly admitted that ‘’Substantial parts of [Johnson’s War on Poverty] will have to be heaved overboard.’’ The administration enacted “dramatic cuts in food stamps, Pell Grants, housing subsidies, unemployment compensation, and student loans early in his presidency,” Orleck noted. The poor were hit hard: “three million children were cut from the school lunch program, one million from food stamps, five hundred thousand from school breakfast programs, and an equal number from cash assistance. Three-quarters of a million children lost Medicaid benefits. More than three hundred thousand families were pushed out of public housing. Rates of homelessness soared.”
But Reagan also wanted to protect middle-class entitlements like Medicare and Social Security so as to appeal to white ethnic and blue collar workers. As a result, he didn’t deal with most of the welfare state. The dependency argument only targeted the most disadvantaged. In his second term, Reagan actually increased spending on anti-poverty programs and significantly expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Bill Clinton’s welfare reform and chastity training for poor single mothers.
In 1996, President Clinton signed the law that did away with guaranteed income assistance for poor families with children and replaced it with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The program provided states with federal block grants to support income assistance and other services for low-income families with children and included a “work first” requirement.
The GOP-backed measure was based on the principle that “Having children out of wedlock is wrong — not simply economically unwise for the individuals involved or a financial burden on society, but morally wrong.” Even Clinton’s Department of Health and Human Services Secretary, Donna E. Shalala, fully embraced the argument in a comment that stigmatized single mothers, telling Newsweek, “I don’t like to put this in moral terms, but I do believe that having children out of wedlock is just wrong,” In fact, the original bill “appropriated $250 million over five years for ‘chastity training’ for poor single mothers.”
“I think it is the most enduring victory of the conservative movement,” Suri said, “the delegitimization of welfare.” Clinton recognized this dynamic and ran on opportunity, not on giving help to the poor. “What you see happening is a shift from a rhetoric about race in the 60s to a rhetoric about economic empowerment.” The language about race now runs under the surface, rather than being stated outright, but still helps to dismantle War on Poverty programs.
When TANF was first enacted, child poverty fell significantly and racial and ethnic disparities closed. But after the economy stumbled, “TANF lost the ability to respond to increased need in tough economic times,” and its benefits are now worth “at least 20 percent less than in 1996” in 37 states, Suri pointed out.
Ultimately, Clinton won over some poverty advocates by doubling the number of people eligible for the EITC and tripling the maximum benefit.
President Bush expands food stamps and unemployment benefits. “By the time Bush came in there was no big political wedge issue [surrounding welfare reform],” Galbraith said. “And when in 2004 they needed government spending, they just turned on the taps and let the Congress pass everything,” including large new health care benefits like Medicare Part D. The food stamp program also grew, first in 2002, via that year’s farm bill, and then again in 2008. Though Bush vetoed the bill, House and Senate Republicans joined Democrats to override it. Bush also signed two extensions of long-term unemployment benefits with significant Republican support in 2003 and in 2008, as the economy fell into a recession.
But as Barack Obama assumed the presidency in the midst of the financial collapse, passing an economic stimulus package, assistance for needy Americans, and beginning to push for a health care bill that expanded the role of government, conservative Tea Party activists rebelled against the agenda, relying on the same arguments Goldwater and Reagan deployed during the 1960s. Race played a huge part, with a proliferation of racially tinged or outright racist signs at protests and the NAACP even claiming that the movement has ties to racist groups.
Even so, Obama never sought to match Johnson’s effort and was constrained by some of the successes of Republicans in reshaping the debate about poverty and the short-term deficits created by the economic crisis. “He is a Democratic president coming into Washington after Reagan, after [Newt] Gingrich had really changed the debate on certain issues for Democrats,” Zelizer said. “So in the midst of the Great Recession, it was very hard for President Obama to just openly and forcefully talk about the need for government to help the most disadvantaged.”
The 47 percent.
The height of the GOP opposition came during Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, when the candidate argued that 47 percent of Americans are “dependent upon government.” Speaking to donors in the days following the election, the former Massachusetts governor echoed the arguments of the 1960s, speculating that Obama won because he was “very generous” to his base. “The President’s campaign,” he said, “focused on giving targeted groups a big gift — so he made a big effort on small things. Those small things, by the way, add up to trillions of dollars.”
Romney’s running mate, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), authored budgets that would make extreme cuts in the social safety net laid down by Johnson’s War on Poverty, and disproportionately impact women and people of color. For instance, under Ryan’s leadership, the GOP budget would repeal the Affordable Care Act, a law that provides health care security for millions of working poor Americans by expanding Medicaid for individuals and families earning above 138 percent of the federal poverty line, push more than 12 million Americans out of the food stamps program, and secure steep reductions for child care, Head Start, job training, Pell Grants, housing, energy assistance, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and TANF. The majority of those who rely on these programs are the groups who were the targets of attacks on the War on Poverty over the last half-century.