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Why Aren’t the Candidates Addressing Poverty?

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Poverty Bill (also known as the Economic Opportunity Act).

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Poverty Bill (also known as the Economic Opportunity Act) on August 20, 1964. LBJ Library photo by Cecil Stoughton. PD.

President Lyndon Johnson announces the War on Poverty in his 1964 State of the Union Address.

This month marks the anniversary of the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, the legislative centerpiece of President Lyndon Baine Johnson’s War on Poverty.

President Johnson declared the War on Poverty in his State of the Union Address on January 8, 1964:

This administration today here and now declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join me in that effort...

Poverty is a national problem, requiring improved national organization and support. But this attack, to be effective, must also be organized at the State and local level.

For the war against poverty will not be won here in Washington. It must be won in the field, in every private home, in every public office, from the courthouse to the White House.

Very often, a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom.

Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty but to cure it–and above all, to prevent it.

No single piece of legislation, however, is going to suffice.

Johnson made the War on Poverty the central concern of the nation, but as he noted in his SOTU address, it also required several bills and acts to create programs meant to alleviate poverty and improve the living standard for the poor. It also required presidential leadership and partisan compromise.

A half a century later, poverty has fallen off the national agenda. Furthermore, according to a recent Associated Press survey of economists, think tanks and academics finds that the poverty rate is set to rise to 15.7 percent this year, the highest levels since the EOA was adopted. What’s more, the presidential candidates aren’t addressing the poor in this election. Instead, both the Obama and Romney campaigns are battling for the middle class.

In 2008, President Obama cast himself as a “lifelong advocate for the poor,” and presented an agenda for how he would fight poverty. But in this election, he seems reluctant to do so, perhaps because it could be used as another sign of economic decline during his tenure. To be fair, the White House does claim that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act “included broad investments to alleviate the poverty made worse by economic crisis,” but that is the only accomplishment on poverty touted on the White House website.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has made clear that he is more concerned about the middle class because the poor have a safety net. In an interview with CNN’s Soledad O’Brien earlier this year, Romney said:

By the way, I'm in this race because I care about Americans. I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it. I'm not concerned about the very rich. They're doing just fine. I'm concerned about the very heart of America, the 90, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling. I'll continue to take that message across the nation.

(Note: He reiterated his position in a follow-up question from O’Brien.)

Given the new information regarding the rise in poverty rates, should the candidates debate how to address poverty and the safety net?

In contrast to the candidates in the 2012 election, conversations from the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program reveal just how passionate President Johnson was about the fight against poverty. Below are some highlights from our archives.

  • A July 25, 1964 call with Chicago Mayor Daley demonstrates the President’s focus on the Job Corps as the core of the War on Poverty, and it reflects an assumption by both men that the program will be controlled at the local level by the mayor's office.
  • A July 29, 1964 call with Texas Congressman George Mahon offers an example of how Johnson targeted conservatives by selling the War on Poverty in terms of improving the work habits of the poor and providing them with job and training opportunities
  • A July 30, 1964 call with Francis Smith demonstrates how President Johnson viewed the War on Poverty as a direct solution to racial tensions. The President also urged Smith to lobby Republicans to support the War on Poverty legislation that would soon be voted on in the House of Representatives.
  • Following his victory in the 1964 election, President Johnson compares his poverty program to the abolition of slavery.
  • With a vote imminent on EOA in the House of Representatives, Special Assistant to the President for Congressional Affairs (and Johnson's 1964 campaign director) Larry O'Brien tells the President in this August 7, 1964 call "if we can just keep the boys that should be sober, sober, and the ones that should be drinking, drinking, that's our job for the afternoon." In a call with Special Assistant Bill Moyers on the same day, Johnson expressed concern with the anti-poverty legislation as written by his aides and tells Moyers: "I'm going to re-write your poverty program."

Check out the Miller Center’s full archive of presidential recordings on the War on Poverty here. Also worth checking out are presentations from the Miller Center’s 2007 conference, which re-evaluated the War on Poverty from the perspectives of grassroots activists who sought to harness the Johnson administration's federal antipoverty initiatives to advance their local campaigns for racial and economic justice.

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