Fifty years today, a new
president thrust into office by tragedy delivered his first State of the Union address and challenged the nation to address the drastic economic inequality that condemned millions of Americans to lives without decent housing, adequate nutrition, education or hope.
Lyndon B. Johnson's broad-ranging initiative came to be known as the War on Poverty, a cornerstone for what he termed the Great Society. His speech, on Jan. 8, 1964, led Congress to pass the Economic Opportunity Act, which established the Office of Economic Opportunity to administer federal funds targeted against poverty.
Johnson's call for direct government intervention aimed at uplifting the lives of lower-income Americans led to the creation of many programs that endure a half-century later, including Medicare and Medicaid, Head Start and food stamps. In Portage County, the War in Poverty led to the establishment of the Community Action Council and the Portage Metropolitan Housing Authority, which have worked diligently for nearly five decades to improve conditions of those in need.
When President Johnson addressed Congress in January 1964, nearly one in five Americans lived in poverty. Parts of Appalachia lacked electricity and indoor plumbing. Hunger and infant mortality posed challenges for many families. Millions lived in substandard housing.
The War on Poverty, the most far-reaching attempt at social engineering since Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal more than a generation earlier, unquestionably improved the lives of millions of Americans by enlarging the social safety net and providing necessary assistance for many. But Johnson's other war, the debacle in Vietnam that eventually consumed his presidency and turned him out of office, did a great deal to halt the progress made by Great Society programs.
Fifty years later, some would argue that the War in Poverty was a failure. The poverty level today is about 15 percent, millions remain out of work in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008, food banks continue to address local hunger issues and children in poor neighborhoods often receive substandard education. Inequality in economic opportunity persists.
But while there is no question that many Americans continue to find themselves on the short end of the economic spectrum, the dire straits confronted by millions in 1964 have eased. Programs such as Medicare and Medicaid have provided a foundation for medical care; food subsidies and housing assistance have eased hunger and provided decent housing.
Lyndon Johnson's "war" didn't defeat poverty, but it did make a difference in fighting a battle that remains to be fought today. The programs it inspired changed lives, and millions of Americans are better off today because of a president who challenged Congress to improve their living conditions.