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Commentary: The Lyndon B Johnson war on poverty, fifty years later
Published on January 11, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Jean H Charles

Amongst the presidents of the United States, I have some favorites that I tend to have a special affinity for and preach about with the zeal of a missionary. John Adams (1797-1801) occupies first place. Further inquiry by historians will reveal that, if John Adams had succeeded his quest for a second term in 1800, the Civil War in the United States would not be necessary; Haiti would not need its protracted revolutionary war. Toussaint Louverture would become king of Haiti and would have convinced Napoleon Bonaparte with the connivance of the United States that the concept of a French Commonwealth, a la the British one, was a sound international policy for the new liberated Haiti from the yoke of slavery.

Jean H Charles LLB, MSW, JD is a syndicated columnist with Caribbean News Now. He can be reached at: and followed for past essays at Caribbeannewsnow/Haiti
Of course, Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865) for daring to go to war against the South to render the United States a land of equal opportunity for all, in particular the black population that was considered less than equal even after the American Revolution and the Constitution that declared that we are all created to God’s image.

Franklin D Roosevelt (1939 -1945) for engaging the people of the United States to mobilize, men and women to fight the specter of Nazism in Europe that was eroding the very ethos of morality that was the hallmark of humanity since Abraham responded to God’s call to leave Mesopotamia and its doctrine of idolatry to travel to Palestine so the Redemptory would perfect 2,000 years later the urging of man to become a divine being.

And Lyndon B Johnson (1963-1969) for choosing to follow Dr Martin Luther King vision “designed to help each and every American citizen fulfill his basic hopes -- his hopes for a fair chance to make good; his hopes for fair play from the law; his hopes for a full-time job on full-time pay; his hopes for a decent home for his family in a decent community; his hopes for a good school for his children with good teachers; and his hopes for security when faced with sickness or unemployment or old age… 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. We have in 1964 a unique opportunity and obligation to prove the success of our system.”

That was Lyndon Johnson in his first State of the Union address on January8, 1964.

To what extent, Lyndon Johnson vision of creating an America where the basic hopes of each American Citizen was fulfilled fifty years later is the subject of this essay?

At the outset, we must say, using the lowest standard of evaluation, the United States has failed the Johnson war on poverty. The special circumstances that undermine the efforts of John Adams such as his failure to be re-elected, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln shortly after his victory against the rebellious South and the decision of Lyndon Johnson not present himself for re-election after his debacle of the Vietnam War have circuited the vision of these giants to change the course of history for the best.

Revisiting Johnson’s state of the Union address, we find that most of the progressive policies of the United States have their origin in that address:

• Helping Appalachia to catch up with the rest of the country...

• Enacting the Youth Employment Act to put jobless, aimless, hopeless youngsters to work on useful projects.

• Enlarging and legislating the food stamp program for the needy.

• Creating the National Service Corps to help the economically handicapped through the Peace Corps dispatched throughout the world.

• Establishing a high level commission to modernize unemployment insurance as such it will be a boon not a bane to humanity.

• Extending the coverage of the minimum wage laws to more than two million workers who were lacking in basic protection and purchasing power.

• Creating a special school aid fund designed to improve the quality of teaching, training, and counseling in the hardest hit areas.

• Building more libraries in every area and more hospitals and nursing homes under the Hill-Burton Act, and train more nurses to staff them.

• Instituting hospital insurance for the older citizens financed by every worker and his employer under Social Security, contributing no more than $1 a month during the employee's working career to protect him in his old age in a dignified manner without cost to the Treasury, against the devastating hardship of prolonged or repeated illness.

• Providing a decent home to each American family, the basis of the American free enterprise system through a revised housing and urban renewal program, giving more help to those displaced by slum clearance, providing more housing for the poor and the elderly.

• Modernizing the modern mass transit as well as incubating a low-cost transportation system between the states and the cities.

• Releasing $11 billion in tax reductions into the private spending stream, as such creating new jobs and new markets in every area of the United States.

Since Lyndon Johnson, I have not been able to find one single president of the United States that has made his business to follow even from afar such a comprehensive project of the war against poverty. As such, it is not difficult to understand that the war against poverty was lost not because of a lack of means but because of a lack of a committed general/president...

According to Senator Paul Ryan, some $15 trillion was spent on the war on poverty while the American Enterprise Institute evaluated the cost for the victory of prosperity over poverty to $103 trillion. The end result is the poverty rate is around 15%, the same rate some 50 years ago. Some 50 million Americans out of a population of 350 million people live under a level of poverty that is not up to par with the wealth and the power of the United States.

By contrast, China, which started its own war against poverty around 1970 with Deng Xiaoping, has succeeded in bringing some 800 million Chinese people into the bliss of middle class. According to the UN Human Development Report, China has a literacy rate at 92 percent, and only one percent of the population does not have access to a toilet.

The reason for the disparity is that China has been consistent in remaining in the path of Den Xiaoping in lining up its state administration apparatus to focus on the fight against poverty until it is won. By comparison, with the exception of the Nixon administration initiatives on the Great Society, the fight against poverty could be summarized by a quip by President Ronald Reagan: “We had the war on poverty and poverty has won.”

The challenges for America in 2014 are the same as in 1964, the inequality in wages, an education system not on par with the needs of the modern times, quality care for all at a cost that is reasonable, and decadent infrastructure.

If the United States has failed on the national front in its policy on the war on poverty, it has on the international front failed in its war on terrorism. Some 500,000 American troops spending $1 trillion and 4,000 American lives were lost rehabilitating Iraq so it might become a nation out of the reach of Al Qaeda. The departure of the Americans has left Iraq a non-nation as ante. The former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in a new book has just revealed that the American venture in Afghanistan has been as disastrous in terms of nation building.

Will President Barack Obama, a beneficiary of the legacy of the Johnson Administration’s Great Society, raise the bar to the challenge and engage the country in the concept designed by Ernest Renan that the nation is a continuous creation?

The home that was built by Thomas Madison and consolidated by Abraham Lincoln must continue to be cherished and enriched by the citizens of America under the guidance of their actual president. The international policy of the United States must be sealed with the same stamp of helping a country at war to become nation basking in the same glorious vision of the past and the engagement to create together a future hospitable to all.

The United States, still the world leader at home and abroad, must engage in the shadow of Lyndon B Johnson at home to win the war on poverty and the guidance of Ernest Renan abroad to create nations out of countries at war by incubating the culture of le vivre en commun, the sense of appurtenance within the people of the same nation.

I am confident the United States, which keeps transmuting itself to adjust with the time and the circumstances, will find a way to win the war on poverty at home and win abroad the war against terrorism by incubating nation building as a staple of its international politics.
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