Chapter 6 - The War on Poverty

In almost every dialogue regarding poverty, Americans face a strange paradox of speaking for those whose experience they have never shared. While many enter the discussion believing that poverty is the ultimate consequence of a lazy population, few intellectuals have ever been utterly reduced to an inadequate standard of living. Indeed, there are always those who choose to live in poverty out of rebellion or self pity, but their actions cast a shadow on the less prominent faces of those who suffer from involuntary poverty. This point, apart from race, deserves a good deal of our attention.

The many complications of poverty have not and never will be summarily defined as problems confined to the black community or resulting entirely from racial victimization. On the contrary, poverty must be understood for what it is: any human existence without the means to pursue one's own happiness. Such an existence can, by all means, be chosen. But more often than not, poverty is generated by gradual or sudden misfortunes, ranging from the unfortunate loss of work to unexpected illness, disabilities, or even old age. Since the late twentieth century, Americans have gradually come to believe that the poor in their communities are on a path of voluntary self-expression, as though poverty was and is the life that all poor choose in order to make a grand illustration on the social landscape. Richard Wagner, Harris Professor of Economics at George Mason University, once wrote:

"The distinction between involuntary poverty by chance and voluntary poverty through choice is simpler to make conceptually than it is to perceive empirically. Poverty is generally a mixture of choice and chance, with that mixture varying from case to case."(1)

He continued:

"It might seem reasonable that [public] policy should seek to aid cases where poverty is the result of chance, while refraining from aiding cases where poverty is the result of choice. The trouble with this prescription is that it cannot be implemented without knowledge of souls and minds. Nature does not generate birthmarks or other signals that allow such categorization. . . . The receipt of aid by those who are poor through choice will encourage more such choices. But to withhold aid to prevent such outcomes will imperil those who are poor through chance."(2)

Wagner was arguing that, although in theory one could be against helping those who haven't helped themselves, practically speaking, no one can truly know the heart and soul of the person whose poverty they so quickly condemn as voluntary. To avoid help for one is to avoid help for all on the basis of an unconfirmed and ignorant assumption. As the fire of the civil rights movement was burning, conservatives and liberals entered a complex debate over the issue of poverty in America. Barry Goldwater, an Arizona Senator, made the political case in The Conscience of a Conservative:

"How easy is it to reach the voters with earnest importunities for helping the needy? And how difficult for Conservatives to resist these demands without appearing to be callous and contemptuous of the plight of less fortunate citizens. "Have you no sense of social obligation?" the Liberals ask.(3)

More than anything, Goldwater was standing up against the idea of federal welfare programs that, he believed, "promote the idea that the government owes the benefits it confers on the individual, and that the individual is entitled, by right, to receive them."(4) Believing he was right to suggest excessive government intervention might produce more harm than good, a growing block of newly impassioned conservatives began seeing any mention of welfare, whether on the federal or local level, as an almost sinful concept. The unintended consequence of the Goldwater Conscience was that Republicans were quickly painted with an accusatory brush of elitism. It didn't matter that there were conservatives working in every public sector of social service.

In the absence of any visible compassion, another voice emerged. Just two years later, Michael Harrington, whose writing of The Other America would soon inspire Lyndon Johnson to begin a War on Poverty in 1964, helped to paint the picture of 'social blindness' in the conservative mind.

Here is the most familiar version of social blindness: "The poor are that way because they are afraid to work. . . . If they were like me (or my father or my grandfather), they could pay their own way. But they prefer to live on the dole and cheat the taxpayers.(5)

His condemnation of the Goldwater Conscience is striking:

"Those who could make the difference too often refuse to act because of their ignorant, smug moralisms. They view the effects of poverty-above all, the warping of the will and spirit that is a consequence of being poor-as choices."(6)

Regardless of his socialized and atheistic tendencies, it was difficult for Conservatives to argue with Harrington's point: pursuit of the American dream among educated and working class Americans in a post-war society had created "a new kind of blindness about poverty."(7)

For the most part, the only poverty that middle and upper class citizens would admit to witnessing was that of a chosen departure from the norm. Like Christopher McCandless, who left the affluent suburbs of Washington to go "Into the Wild" and live without money by choice, successful Americans were beginning to see poverty through the lens of their sons and daughters who wandered into such a lifestyle as a means for adventure. In the case of McCandless, he believed that an affluent society was imprisoned by its own wealth and that wealth, into which he was born, was the root of all evil.(8) Many of America's children who disappeared into the world of poverty by choice were basing their decision on the same message that thousands of preachers have made clear in their pulpits: money can pollute the mind and divert the community from its spiritual responsibility.

Nevertheless, while some members of American society were choosing to live a life of poverty as a sign of rebellion, Harrington brought to life some of the unpopular yet far more widespread forms, such as case poverty and insular poverty.

Case poverty is the plight of those who suffer from some physical or mental disability that is personal and individual and excludes them from the general advance. Insular poverty exists in areas like the Appalachians or the West Virginia coal fields, where an entire section of the country becomes economically obsolete.(9)

But the problem of poverty, according to Harrington, didn't stop with these two forms. Unemployment, desperation, and old age were among the many factors he identified in The Other America.

"It is bad enough for a worker to be laid off for a matter of weeks. When this becomes months, or even years, it is not simply a setback. It is a basic threat to fundamental living standards, a menace to impoverishment. . . . In short, the simple prescription of the comfortable middle-class citizen, 'I can't see why those people don't just move, but I guess they're lazy,' is spoken out of profound ignorance. There are many reasons why they can't move; and in many cases it wouldn't make a difference if they did. These are not people [who] are subject to a temporary, cyclical kind of joblessness. They are more often the ones who have had their very function in the economy obliterated."(10)

"A great number of human beings are required for a brief period to do work that is too delicate for machines and too dirty for any but the dispossessed. So the Southern Negroes, the Texas-Mexicans, and the California Anglos are packed like cattle into trucks and make their pilgrimage of misery . . . [but not before they] sell themselves in the marketplace. The various hiring men chant out piece-work prices or hourly rates."(11)

"Many states report that half their citizens over 65 have incomes too low to meet their basic needs . . . Over half of these people are covered by some kind of Federal program (social security, old-age assistance, and so on). Yet, the social security payments are, by Federal admission, completely inadequate to a decent life. . . . The lonely aged poor are . . . the most impoverished single group in the subculture of poverty. . . . We have, as the Senate Committee well described it, a 'storage bin' philosophy in America. We 'maintain' the aged; we give them the gift of life, but we take away the possibility of dignity."(12)

Greatly ignored in the culture of poverty were the children who, whether their parents were poor by choice or chance, had become the most vulnerable. The "ghetto," in which so many children were being raised, was characterized by an "immoral maldistribution of wealth, high levels of unemployment, dilapidated housing, decrepit schools, inadequate health care, unavailable child care, and shattered familial and communal bonds."(13) Children forced to live in this environment "don't know of light beyond the tunnel of this darkness-they don't grow and they get stuck in this type of mentality."(14) Death in this world was becoming, ironically, a part of life for children who couldn't even begin to focus on education or the future. LeAlan Jones, a teenager from the South Side of Chicago would testify several years later of walking into a worn-down tenement building where five-year-old Eric Morse had been thrown from a fourteenth-floor window by two other children who taunted him for refusing to participate in a criminal theft.

No one around them appreciates life, so why should they? Look at the building-you walk in and it smells like urine, you walk up the stairs and it's dark, broken lights. When you live in filth, your mind takes in filth and you feel nothing. . . . These kids don't have the right ingredients to be good kids. . . . It's like you're in this maze, and you either die in it or you escape. . . . I live here not because I chose to, but because I have to.(15)

By the time President Johnson had begun his domestic war, poverty was proving to be more than the absence of money or the inability to support oneself. It was an entire sub-culture that chewed on human life like quicksand. There was no way to draw the line between chosen poverty and involuntary poverty. Hence, when Harrington introduced an educated and comfortable America to the other America, the federal government, under liberal leadership, took the message as an opportunity to make a case for their political War on Poverty.

As Goldwater predicted, it wouldn't be a hard sell to the easily broken hearts of a reflective American public who were beginning to feel pressed by leaders of the civil rights movement to address the guilt of racial discrimination, segregation, and slavery. In a sense, one might argue that 'white America' wanted to make amends with 'black America' and thus gave it their best shot through the War on Poverty. After all, the most familiar face of poverty was predominantly, though not exclusively, black.

Sorrow filled the nation on November 22, 1963, when the first of several infamous assassinations took the life of President John F. Kennedy. In the wake of his death, as with 9/11 four decades later, it would have been seen as unpatriotic and unsympathetic to come out against the new president and his sobering State of the Union address the following January. It was in that address, however, that President Lyndon Johnson introduced the War on Poverty and began a 'creative federalism' in which the federal government would gradually disregard states and their governors in order to eradicate poverty at the local level.(16) Many were sympathetic to the cause, but most were ignorant of the precedent that Johnson was setting. If, in fact, he were to be successful in rooting out poverty through the means he was attempting to use, state governments would soon become nothing more than a nuisance and a hindrance to the greater good.

The Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) was created to be the administrative leg of the War on Poverty. The agency quickly began passing over the states to fund and strengthen local communities, in spite of opposition from state leaders like California governor and future president Ronald Reagan. Likely unaware of the changes they were making to a constitutional precedent, local officials became 'wary of state involvement,' seeing it as an unnecessary third party to their benevolent fed­eral-local relationship.(17)

Nonetheless, these Community Action Agencies (CAA) that operated in conjunction with the federal government had little success. Ideas were always being proposed as a cure for the disease of poverty, but there were either too many or too few locals involved to be productive. Not to mention the fact that the greatest ingenuity was lost when men and women tried to implement their own concepts without cooperation. The OEO had been established to coordinate the War on Poverty, but the office was organizing more programs than it could possibly execute.(18)

In the latter months of 1966, Vice President Hubert Humphrey continued to make a case to the American people for fighting the president's domestic war. "A balanced attack on poverty must provide at least four somewhat distinct remedies: job creation, job preparation, transfer payments, and equal employment opportunity."(19)

Born in 1911 to the agricultural industry of South Dakota and raised to adulthood against the backdrop of the Great Depression, Humphrey knew first hand what it was to be out of work and without a home.(20) But even a casual observer of his four "remedies" could see that the Humphrey cure for poverty was primarily based on finding work for the unemployed, without concern for the culture that poverty had created. He was a well-spoken man of ideas, but neither Johnson nor his vice president could have been expected to usher in a perfect program. And in the absence of perfection, the followers of Martin and Malcolm soon found themselves vying for Black Power on the local level.

(1) Wagner, American Conservatism, 670.
(2) Ibid., 671.
(3) Goldwater, Conscience, 57.
(4) Ibid., 59.
(5) Harrington, Other America, 14.
(6) Ibid., 15-16.
(7) Ibid., 4.
(8) Penn, Into the Wild.
(9) Harrington, Other America, 11.
(10) Ibid, 32, 34.
(11) Ibid, 40, 50.
(12) Ibid., 104-5, 108, 119.
(13) Jones and Newman, Our America, 11.
(14) Ibid., 95.
(15) Ibid., 97, 145, 159, 200.
(16) Davidson, "War on Poverty," 2.
(17) Ibid, 5.
(18) Sundquist, "Co-ordinating the War on Poverty," 41.
(19) Humphrey, "War on Poverty," 8.
(20) Senate Historical Office, "Hubert H. Humphrey," par. 6.



Ch1 - Anything But Civil

Ch2 - The First Movement for Civil Rights

Ch3 - Poor Man Out

Ch4 - Depression of the Darker Brother

Ch5 - Malcolm and Martin

Ch6 - The War on Poverty

Ch7 - The Fight for Black Power

Ch8 - Between Heaven and Earth

Ch9 - The Most Segregated Hour

Ch10 - Faith, Work, and Politics as Usual



Book Details

Pages: 98
Binding: Paperback
Publication Date: 02/20/2009
Street Date: 02/20/2009
Division: Wipf and Stock
Category: Theology
ISBN 10: 1-60608-396-1
ISBN 13: 978-1-60608-396-3
Purchase from Wipf & Stock

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