The War on Poverty: 50 Years Later, Do We Have the 'Glands?'

There is a scene in the movie American Idealist an excellent biopic about Sargent Shriver, in which President Lyndon Johnson is trying to get Shriver to agree to lead the still-conceptual War on Poverty that the President had announced to the nation in his first State of the Union message on January 8, 1964 (50 years ago) Shriver at the time was directing the Peace Corps, a globe-trotting, full-time job. He had been called home by the president for this conversation. Shriver was deeply committed to the Peace Corps and reluctant to abruptly take on the large new task. At a key moment, the movie uses telephone recordings to track the conversation between the earthy Texan and his urbane but tough colleague:

Johnson: “You’ve got the responsibility, you’ve got the authority, you’ve got the power, you’ve got the money. Now, you may not have the glands.”

Shriver:  “The GLANDS?”

Long pause….

Shriver: “I’ve got plenty of glands.” 

And so Shriver took the job (and kept the Peace Corps job, too).

More importantly, the nation took the job. The nation, following bold leaders, had the "glands" -- the guts -- to undertake a war on poverty with public will and tax dollars. Shriver gathered a remarkable group of experts and devised enduringly effective programs. Poverty was reduced significantly. It is not my subject here to go into the policy details or argue about the policy choices made back then. My point is to highlight the role of public leadership and public support for fighting poverty. Back then, the leaders and the country took it on as a collective effort -- a “war” -- and an appropriate role for government.   

Does America have the guts to take on poverty nowadays? Does it have the leaders to describe the task and give it importance, the public will to engage in a collective effort to fight poverty?

In 1964, Americans had a powerful can-do spirit about what could be accomplished through a national collective effort. They had seen the country conduct major public works projects to provide employment during the Depression, bring electricity to the countryside, win a World War, rebuild Europe, confront the Soviet threat, and commit to an effort to reach the moon. There was a partisan divide on many issues but also a spirit of bipartisanship in solving problems. Revelations about Appalachian and inner-city poverty had shocked a self-satisfied country lulled by the 1950s-era image of suburban prosperity. John Kennedy and, more recently, Bobby Kennedy had begun to take on poverty as a national cause.  After the assassination of President Kennedy, the country and Congress were ready to follow through on Kennedy-inspired initiatives, and President Johnson wanted to seize this moment and put his own stamp on the effort as well. The stars were aligned for a national, tax-supported War on Poverty. See Scott Stossel’s fine biography, Sarge, for details on all of this.

America is a different place now. We have gone through Vietnam, Watergate, and most recently the Great Recession and many other episodes draining confidence in government. President Reagan led an ascendant conservatism devoted in large part to undermining public confidence in government. A newer wave of conservative ideology blames the poor and resists public efforts to address poverty as affronts to the personal “freedom” of wealthy individuals whose tax dollars might support those efforts. Bipartisanship in solving big problems is disparaged by many and rare. For a significant portion of the body politic there is a big shrugging off of any collective responsibility for poverty, a categorical opposition to undertaking a tax-supported public campaign to address poverty. There is no stomach for the effort.

These recent decades have eroded the American sense of confidence, mutual effort, and mission. Nevertheless, at this 50th anniversary of the declaration of the War on Poverty, there are some signs that, if the leadership has the will and makes the commitment to take on poverty as a collective challenge, the public will respond. President Obama has not announced a “war” on poverty, but he has consistently delivered a message of mutual responsibility and collective effort to raise the circumstances and opportunities of all Americans. Starting with his famous convention speech in 2004 (“it matters to me if your kid can’t read, even if my kid can”) this message has resonated widely with the American public. For my money, the positive public response to this message accounts for Obama’s two election victories -- people want to engage in a good collective effort in a cause fueled by values they like to believe they own. They want to be led to it and in it.

There is also growing concern about the eye-popping and growing income inequality in the country, and people are attentive to the stubborn persistence of the poverty rate, especially among children, and the anomaly of it in a prosperous country. Since the recession, people who had gotten used to thinking that poverty was someone else’s problem have seen it lurking at their own door. That Rep. Paul Ryan is fashioning a Republican program to take on poverty provides some corroboration that I am not alone in my reading of the public’s receptivity.  

The Affordable Care Act, in my opinion, is the single biggest anti-poverty measure in the last 50 years (since the War on Poverty era). It was not framed as an anti-poverty measure. The messaging about the Affordable Care Act suggested that it would benefit the “middle class” (which is, of course, also quite accurate). Proponents followed the advice or their media and messaging experts, fueled by polling and focus groups. They chose to use framing that works in today’s America. It’s hard to quibble with success. The episode, however, does indicate a growing public will, notwithstanding decades of government-bashing and partisanship, to undertake collective efforts supported by tax dollars to solve large problems, provided the leadership is there. 

At this 50th anniversary of the declaration of the War on Poverty, there are signs that if America’s leaders take on poverty by name, the country itself may be ready to take large-scale action against poverty. There are plenty of good ideas that need public will and investment and a spirit of bold endeavor. We should make this a time that will have its own anniversary 50 years from now as a watershed in the successful fight against poverty.