Revisiting the War on Poverty

Nov 15, 2008 | Updated May 25, 2011

NOTE: October 15, 2008, is Blog Action Day, an annual nonprofit event that aims to unite the world's bloggers, podcasters and videocasters, to post about the same issue on the same day. Its aim is to raise awareness and trigger a global discussion. This year's theme is Poverty and its ensuing repercussions.

This year marks the forty-fourth year since President Lyndon B. Johnson, in his first State of the Union speech, declared a "War on Poverty." Do you remember or know what I'm talking about? No, not the War on Terror; the War on Poverty. President Johnson's "declaration" came just weeks after succeeding to the White House upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Besides the shock felt around the world by President Kennedy's assassination, the U.S. was going through some difficult economic times associated with a national poverty rate of around 19 percent.

President Johnson's War on Poverty speech was in direct response to these difficult economic conditions and led to the United States Congress passing a wide variety of social welfare legislation, most notably the Economic Opportunity Act. And in spite of the formidable challenges that he faced at this particular time in our Nation's history, the fledgling President, yet seasoned and experienced politician and public servant, remained optimistic and hopeful about the future. He even began his speech with the following words, "Because it is right, because it is wise, and because, for the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty," and viewed his proposal as a "new course" that struck at the causes of poverty, not simply the consequences of it.

Of course, Johnson's War on Poverty and his parallel vision for a "Great Society," did not come without critics. Many viewed such large-scale government intervention as the emergence of a "welfare state" that effectively worked at cross purposes to the goals and objectives that were being pursued. In this regard, some economists argued that Johnson's policies actually had a negative impact on the U.S. economy because of their interventionist nature. Adherents of this school of thought recommended that the best way to fight poverty was not through government spending but through economic growth. Likewise, other critics of the War on Poverty claimed that the liberal welfare programs encouraged dependency and discouraged people from obtaining education and job skills. (Fast forward to today and doesn't this debate sound familiar?)

As a "human services warrior" in the 1970s, I vividly recall how difficult it was to wage the "war" on poverty under such conflicting and confusing policy positions. Political scientist David Easton defined public policy as the "allocation of values for a society." Clearly, when it came to combating the causes (and consequences) of poverty, the allocation of values left much to be desired and often times it seemed like we were our own worst enemy! Much like our experience with the Vietnam War, the troops on the ground were not really clear if they had orders -- and, more importantly, if they had the political will and public support behind them -- to win the "War on Poverty" or not. So in spite of our best intentions, combating poverty proved to be less a full-scale "war" and more a series of skirmishes that kept "victory" at bay if not totally out of reach. Like the Greek hero, Sisyphus, we had become accustomed to pushing a big boulder up hill, only to see it slip out of our hands and roll back down the hill again, and again, and again. And back then, of course, we had not yet learned that a "surge" was a viable strategic option, even if we could have employed such a strategy!

Having served several tours of duty in the War on Poverty, I also must say that my personal philosophy and orientation to the mission at hand changed significantly over time. Initially, I was an idealistic "grunt," spending most of my time on the firing line and, frequently, in the actual line of fire. For example, as a mental health worker for the State of Illinois, I had responsibility for developing and maintaining a community support system of social and mental health services for psychiatric patients in a "sub-region" (i.e., the south side) of the City of Chicago. And while my work with patients, their families, and various community-based organizations was rewarding, the Sisyphus Syndrome (that is, striving for success with no end in sight), I must say, eventually took its toll on me as it did with so many of my fellow soldiers on the "battlefield."

Besides the nagging feeling that our efforts were "band-aids" rather than cures for the personal and collective suffering that we encountered, I learned the hard way that my sphere of influence would remain very limited unless I was able to move to a position with more leverage and with a macro-level, systemic view of the complex challenges we faced. In this regard, I was very fortunate to obtain an academic position that enabled me to conduct "applied research" on various social and economic policy issues of the day, as well as "consult" with organizations at the national, state, and local levels as a subject matter expert on such issues. Indeed, the best way to realize your dreams is to wake up, and, boy, did I wake up quickly! I learned a great deal about the policy and program apparatus that was behind the "War on Poverty," or at least what was left of it at the time.

Having the opportunity to work closely with such massive bureaucracies as the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services) and the U.S. Department of Labor was, to say the least, enlightening. And, because my vantage point of poverty changed as a result of working with these federal agencies (i.e., Miles Law: "where you stand is where you sit"), so did my own perspective on how best to deal with the issue. I found myself, for instance, caught up in often heated debates over who were the so-called "deserving" poor (deemed to have found themselves in poverty through no fault of their own) and who were the "undeserving" poor (typically described as the long-term unemployed who had never acquired -- or somehow had lost -- the habits and capacities necessary to hold a full-time job and be a contributing member of society). For better or worse, this distinction proved to be a critical factor in the design and delivery of human services policy and program support for those in need.

Among the things that I was able to leave behind as a result of my years of service to the War on Poverty was a monograph that I co-authored with an academic colleague in which we laid out a framework for coordinating the vast array of programs and services to meet human needs. Entitled Dimensions of Service Integration, this seminal monograph was published in 1979 by Project SHARE, a national clearinghouse for improving the management of human services created by President Jimmy Carter and operated by the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Even though Project SHARE was dismantled under President Ronald Reagan's Administration, which made innovative resources like our monograph difficult to obtain, I'm pleased to say that the influence of these resources has persisted over the years (now decades). In particular, Dimensions of Service Integration to this day continues to guide, both conceptually and practically, the design, management, and operation of human services policies and programs in the USA and in other countries. All else being equal, the goal, as espoused in Dimensions of Service Integration, was (and still is) to ensure that as few people as possible "fall through the cracks" of our existing human services system(s). This vision of an integrated system of social welfare services, it should be noted, was consistent with the vision that had been articulated by President Johnson in his War on Poverty speech in 1964!

To be sure, however, the War on Poverty is far from over. And, as a Nation, we still seem to be waging a "war" over the allocation of values which, in turn, leads to unclear, and often conflicting, public policies towards the resolution (dare I say "elimination") of poverty once and for all. And while I may no longer be an "idealist," I do consider myself to be a "true optimist" which, as I describe in my book, Prisoners of Our Thoughts, requires more than positive thinking. Hope, in this context, is not a viable strategy; at least not in and of itself. Addressing the issues (plural) of poverty, both in this country and on a global scale, will take a concerted and coordinated effort like we've never seen before. Poverty is not just government's "problem"; it's everyone's problem. And, therefore, in one way or another, everyone is ultimately responsible for doing something about it.

Indeed, "responsibility" may prove to be the biggest challenge of the 21st Century. I recently contributed to a book on this very topic. The book's title, Responsibility 911, reveals, in no uncertain terms, how critically important the issue of responsibility has become in today's world. In fact, the book's title suggests that it is now an "emergency" since true freedom hangs in the balance. In Responsibility 911, prominent authors from around the world (including contributions from Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama), reveal how a practical application of responsibility is both needed and essential from the family kitchen table to the corporate board room. Moreover, without personal and collective responsibility, there can be no democracy or real freedom. Without personal and collective responsibility, poverty will always be the huge boulder that we, like Sisyphus, will be condemned to repeat forever the task of pushing up a hill, only to see it roll down again.


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