Monday, at the Brookings Institution, Republican budget leader Paul Ryan, R-Wis., asserted that the War on Poverty had failed. Republicans, since the time of Ronald Reagan, have suggested the same. But what we all must remember is that the War on Poverty was never fully funded. As leaders today grapple with current income inequality and reflect on the 50th anniversary of President Johnson's famous declaration of a War on Poverty in his 1964 State of the Union address, a critical point to bear in mind is that the Vietnam War – and its huge financial costs – interrupted the War on Poverty and siphoned funds from its programs.
"There was great, great disappointment and frustration, and a feeling that the high hopes were shattered by the needs of the [Vietnam] war. By '65-'66 the budget was cut back extremely. The financial resources to deal with poverty on a broad-based scale were just not there. And the broad-based scale was key."
That's John Wofford, who served as one of the first staffers in the Office of Economic Opportunity. (He also happens to be my father.) The Office of Economic Opportunity, created by the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, was the agency responsible for administering most of the War on Poverty programs created during Johnson's administration, including VISTA, Job Corps, Head Start, Legal Services, Upward Bound, Foster Grandparents, and the Community Action Program.
"I remember my boss coming back from a meeting at the Office of the Budget and saying, 'Well, that's it, Vietnam has just taken over. Expectations have to be curtailed. Everything has to be cut back,'" Wofford recalled.
So to those who scoff that Johnson's War on Poverty did not succeed, let's not forget that it was never fully launched. A real war abroad overwhelmed the metaphorical war here at home.
Nevertheless, even not fully funded and even though poverty has not been completely eliminated, the War on Poverty was successful not just in reducing poverty but also in providing a successful framework for solutions.
Of course, some Republican leaders want to see new solutions, but – as reflected in Republican and Democratic proposals and pronouncements last week and this – everyone accepts the notion that both the causes and effects of poverty are complex and require solutions that integrate many facets of poverty. This more complex understanding of the roots of poverty, and solutions needed, is perhaps the most important legacy left to us from the War on Poverty.
At the time, the War on Poverty was radical in part for presenting a holistic framework. For arguably the first time, poverty was understood to be not just about jobs, or education, or family, or health, or housing, or legal assistance, or food, but all of those things, interacting.
That complex understanding of poverty remains with us today. Although party leaders today embrace differing solutions, we all accept that children will not escape poverty if we do not address the myriad factors dragging them back. When Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan or President Obama present their ideas for solving poverty, they accept the basic tenet outlined by President Johnson that there is not one single magic bullet. Everyone agrees that kids don't stand a chance without a decent education; we disagree only about how to provide a decent education. (You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagrees with the economists at Brookings, who concluded that if a disadvantaged child arrives ready for kindergarten, she's twice as likely to complete elementary school with strong skills, a key indicator for her later ability to enter the middle class.) Everyone agrees that kids need food, a safe bed to sleep in and basic medical care; we disagree only about how to deliver those. Everyone agrees young adults cannot succeed in the 21st century workforce without modern skills and life skills (such as showing up on time for the job); we disagree only about how to teach those skills.
There even exist areas of agreement about specific programs. The War on Poverty's framework has succeeded, in large part, despite being underfunded. Eleven of the 12 programs started by the Office of Economic Opportunity remain with us today, as do other critical War on Poverty elements, and make a significant difference in leveling the playing field and opening access to the American Dream. Who today would argue against college aid for poor kids? Or sufficient Medicare and Social Security to keep America's grandmas and grandpas out of the poor house?
If all of the War on Poverty's programs had been fully funded in 1964, or were fully funded today, America could wipe out poverty. But, as it is, we face sharp cuts in food stamps and unemployment benefits at precisely the wrong time, when many American families are still attempting to pull out of the Great Recession. Nevertheless, the legacy of the War on Poverty – a more complex understanding of poverty and a framework for addressing it – remains strong, across party lines, today.