The War on Poverty
The most ambitious and controversial part of the Great Society was its initiative to end poverty. The Kennedy Administration had been contemplating a federal effort against poverty. Johnson, who had observed extreme poverty as a school-teacher in Texas, adopted Kennedy's program. In the first months of his presidency, Johnson declared an "unconditional war on poverty," with the lofty goal of eliminating hunger and deprivation from American life. The War on Poverty's programs reflected a consenus among the Johnson administration that poverty was best addressed through the creation of economic opportunity, rather than by simply raising incomes, as Johnson emphasized in speeches around the country. The War thus focused on education, job training, and community development.
The War on Poverty began with a $1 billion appropriation in 1964 and spent another $2 billion in the following two years. It spawned dozens of programs, among them:
- the Job Corps, whose purpose was to help disadvantaged youth develop marketable skills
- the Neighborhood Youth Corps, established to give poor urban youths work experience and to encourage them to stay in school
- Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), a domestic version of the Peace Corps, which placed concerned citizens with community-based agencies to work towards empowerment of the poor
- the Model Cities Program for urban redevelopment
- Upward Bound, which assisted poor high school students entering college
- legal services for the poor
- the Food Stamp Act of 1964 (which expanded the federal food stamp program)
- the Community Action Program, which initiated local Community Action Agencies charged with helping the poor become self-sufficient
- Project Head Start, which offered preschool education for poor children
In addition, funding was provided for the establishment of community health centers to expand access to health care, while major amendments were made to Social Security in 1965 and 1967 which significantly increased benefits, expanded coverage, and established new programs to combat poverty and raise living standards. In addition, average AFDC payments were 35% higher in 1968 than in 1960, but remained insufficient and uneven.
Economic Opportunity Act
The centerpiece of the War on Poverty was the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, which created an Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to oversee a variety of community-based anti-poverty programs. The OEO was responsible for administering most of the War on Poverty programs, including VISTA, Job Corps, Head Start, Legal Services and the Community Action Program.
The OEO launched Project Head Start as an eight-week summer program in 1965. The project was designed to help end poverty by creating a program for preschool children from low-income families that addresses emotional, social, health, nutritional, and psychological needs. President Johnson also launched Project Follow Through, implemented in 1967, to follow up with graduates of the Head Start program. The policy trains disadvantaged and at-risk youth and has provided more than two million disadvantaged young people with integrated academic, vocational, and social skills training. Job Corps continues to help 70,000 youths annually at 122 Job Corps centers throughout the country. Besides vocational training, many Job Corps also offer GED programs as well as high school diplomas and programs to get students into college.
The impact of the War on Poverty is debated. In the decade following the program's introduction, poverty rates in the U.S. dropped to their lowest level since comprehensive records began in 1958, from 17.3% in 1964 to 11.1% in 1973. Since 1973, the rate has fluctuated between 11 and 15.2%. The ‘absolute poverty line’ is the threshold below which families or individuals are considered to be lacking the resources needed for healthy living, that is having insufficient income to provide the food, shelter and clothing. Poverty among Americans between ages 18–64 has fallen only marginally since 1966, from 10.5% then to 10.1% today. Poverty has significantly fallen among Americans under 18 years old from 23% in 1964 down to less than 17%, although it rose to 20% in 2009. The most dramatic decrease in poverty was among Americans over 65, which fell from 28.5% in 1966 to 10.1% today. In 2004, more than 35.9 million, or 12% of Americans, including 12.1 million children, were considered to be living in poverty with an average growth of almost one million per year.
The popularity of the War on Poverty waned after the 1960s. The OEO was dismantled by President Nixon in 1973, though many of the agency's programs were transferred to other government agencies. Deregulation, growing criticism of the welfare state, and an ideological shift to conservatism in the 1980s and 1990s culminated in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, which, in the words of President Clinton, "end[ed] welfare as we know it."