With January 8, 2014 marking the 50th anniversary of the State of the Union speech given by LBJ declaring war on poverty, we are likely to hear a fair amount of debate about whether it was a success or failure in coming months. The quality of this debate would be much improved if there were a historically grounded, non-symbolic definition of the war on poverty, so here’s my quick attempt at one (with apologies to real historians).

Currently, the media tends to follow the right’s framing which reduces the war on poverty to existing means-tested benefits and programs and pins big-sounding dollar amounts to it. For example, Heritage’s Rachel Sheffield describes the war on poverty as “putting into place a multitude of government means-tested welfare programs” and continuing to this day.

In one sense this is an oddly narrow definition since it excludes initiatives like the establishment of Medicare, increases in Social Security retirement benefits, and the expansion of minimum wage coverage, all of which were identified by the Johnson administration as a core part of the war on poverty. In another sense, it is an oddly expansive definition since it encompasses policies and programs put in place after the “conservative reorientation of the role of the federal government in our economy”, as President Ronald Reagan put it in his 1982 Economic Report. These include the fundamentally conservative 1996 law that ended the Social Security Act’s Aid to Families (AFDC) program and replaced it with a block grant that has now been frozen for nearly two decades at its mid-1990s nominal funding level.

In an excellent new Russell Sage Foundation book on the war on poverty, Martha Bailey and Sheldon Danziger take a more historically informed approach, defining the war on poverty as:

"The full legislative agenda laid out in the 1964 State of the Union and in the eleven goals contained in chapter 2 of the 1964 Economic Report of the President, titled 'Strategy against Poverty'... These goals include maintaining high employment, accelerating economic growth, fighting discrimination, improving regional economies, rehabilitating urban and rural communities, improving labor markets, expanding educational opportunities, enlarging opportunities for youth, improving the Nation’s health, promoting adult education and training, and assisting the aged and disabled."

By their definition, the war on poverty includes 16 major pieces of legislation passed during the Johnson administration between 1964 and 1968 (for a list, see their very helpful Table 1.1 in the first chapter of the book, which is available on line).

This is much better, both historical and also because it makes clear that when conservatives call the war on poverty a failure, they are calling Medicare, Social Security, as well as Pell Grants and other forms of student financial a failure.

That said, I would extend the Bailey/Danziger definition a bit further. There is a good historical case to be made that the “war on poverty era” continued at least through 1974 and arguably 1977 (and it was definitely over by Reagan's election). As a practical matter, Nixon did much more to build on Johnson’s anti-poverty initiatives than to tear them down (in contrast to Reagan and subsequent conservative leaders like Newt Gingrich).

For example, while the Food Stamp Program (now SNAP) was expanded from a pilot program to a permanent one in 1964, only about 1.5 percent of the U.S. population were receiving benefits the month after Johnson left office, and the decision to operate a food stamp program as well as the eligibility standards was still left to local areas. It was legislation adopted during the Nixon Administration (particularly in 1971 and 1973) that made food stamps a truly national program with uniform eligibility standards and availability nationwide. By October 1974, about 7 percent of Americans were receiving benefits. And it was the Food Stamp Act of 1977, which owes its existence in large part to the bipartisan efforts of Senator Bob Dole and George McGovern that established the modern program we have today.

Similarly, Supplemental Security Income was established in 1972 to replace state programs for the elderly and disabled (funded under the Social Security Act) with a federal program with uniform eligibility criteria throughout the nation. And the EITC was first established in the Tax Reduction Act of 1975, signed by President Ford. Both SSI and the EITC had their beginnings in Congressional debates in the early 1970s over President Nixon’s otherwise ill-fated Family Assistance Plan proposal.

And, in 1969, Nixon called for adding an automatic COLA to Social Security as well as an across-the-board benefit increase); he signed both into law in 1972.

While Johnson may have initiated the War on Poverty, it was Nixon who institutionalized much of it. Given this, I’d define the war on poverty as encompassing the investments and initiatives flowing from the Johnson declaration in 1964 and enacted by 1977. 

One might reasonably ask whether the definition matters all that much. I’d argue it does because current prevailing understandings of the war on poverty (particularly in the media) position it as a liberal Democratic initiative, and not as the relatively centrist, largely bipartisan one that it really was. One consequence is that Johnson’s declaration often becomes a kind of left wing of the possible for advocates today. 

Another consequence is that it can be difficult for progressive anti-poverty advocates to critique some of the real limitations of war on poverty, which have little to do with conservative critiques of the war on poverty.

The real limitations of the war on poverty are evident in the State of the Union speech he gave declaring the war. In that speech, at the end of a 13-point list detailing the legislation he was proposing to end poverty, he says: “Above all, we must release $11 billion of tax reduction into the private spending stream to create new jobs and new markets in every area of this land.” [my italics]. In other words, tax cuts were part of the war on poverty, something you’ll never hear from the Heritage Foundation, or many liberals for that matter.

What wasn’t much a part of the war on poverty was structural economic reform. For example, later on in the same speech, Johnson opposed the AFL-CIO’s call, first made in 1962, for a 35-hour work week. And while Johnson supported efforts to expand the coverage of the minimum wage, the administration was fairly lukewarm on increasing it substantially, as William Nordlund has detailed in his history of the minimum wage.

As Paul Starr has noted:

"The social reforms of the Kennedy and Johnson years helped to ameliorate poverty and to buffer Americans against the economic downturns of later decades. But the idea of a war on poverty without strengthening the hand of labor was a great mistake. Not all progressives were hostile or indifferent to the unions. Certainly Harrington wasn’t. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he was in Memphis to support a strike by sanitation workers. But too many liberals thought of poverty only as a policy problem, not as a reflection of the underlying distribution of power that politics could alter."

Looking forward toward the next 50 years of anti-poverty organizing and advocacy, one of the most important issues is the extent to which we are able to move beyond just defending and incrementally expanding existing means-tested programs, and toward an agenda that includes more structural economic reform and builds the power of working- and middle-class people. For good primers on the current state of this debate, see Thomas Edsell’s piece in yesterday’s NYT and my colleague Dean Baker’s The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive.