The War on Poverty: Definition, Programs & Statistics

Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the War on Poverty. Read this lesson to learn more about how this 'war' was waged and whether it was successful, then test your knowledge with a quiz.

President Johnson Introduces the War on Poverty

'This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort. It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.'

President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke these words during his State of the Union address in January 1964. In this speech, Johnson promised to devote more federal attention and resources than ever before toward solving and preventing poverty. This War on Poverty would eventually establish several federal programs intended to improve everything from healthcare to education and job training in America. Most people agree that the intentions behind the War on Poverty were admirable, but the success of the effort is still hotly debated.

President Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson

Programs in the War on Poverty

In the 1960s, America was in the middle of the Vietnam War, and more people demanded various social and political reforms. The War on Poverty was part of Johnson's grander vision for America, which he called the Great Society. The Great Society would be an America in which discrimination and poverty would not exist. In 1964 and 1965, Congress went to work on constructing the Great Society and waging the War on Poverty.

Congress began by passing the Economic Opportunity Act in 1964. This act created several new federal programs, many of which survive today. These new programs were designed to accomplish several goals, such as making more loans available to small businesses and increasing job training and educational opportunities for the poor. For example, the act created Job Corps, which provided job training for young people, and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), which trained and sent volunteers to assist poor communities.

President Johnson signing the Economic Opportunity Act
Johnson signing the Economic Opportunity Act

Later in 1964, Congress passed the Food Stamp Act, making the food stamp program permanent. Then, in 1965, Head Start, an early education program that is still in existence, was established. In addition, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was passed with the intention of making education better by allotting greater funds to poor school districts. Perhaps most well known, the Social Security Amendments of 1965 were also passed, and they amended and expanded Social Security by creating Medicare (health insurance for the elderly) and Medicaid (health insurance for poor families), both of which are still around.

Success of the War on Poverty: Looking at the Statistics

As evidenced by all of the new federal programs, the War on Poverty was certainly an ambitious endeavor! But how did it really affect the poor? Scholars still debate whether or not the War on Poverty actually decreased poverty.

Supporters of the effort, citing statistics provided by the White House, argue that the poverty rate decreased from 26% in 1967 to 16% in 2012 due to the War on Poverty. These federal programs have given a helping hand to the poor in order to keep them from becoming completely destitute. Supporters may also note that an average of 27 million people have been raised from poverty every year from 1968 to 2012. And an initiative of particular success was Social Security expansion, which drastically lowered poverty rates among the elderly from 35% in 1960 to 14.8% in 2012.

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