50 years later, War on Poverty’s imprint on educational opportunity remains


by Félix Pérez

In today’s highly charged, winner-take-all brand of politics, the War on Poverty — which marked its 50th anniversary last week — takes on a different meaning depending on the political orientation of the person speaking. Some people hail its central role in reducing poverty and hunger, expanding health care and increasing educational opportunity, while others view it as a failed experiment best replaced by the free enterprise system and state block grants for governors and legislators to use as they see fit.

Either way,  often lost among the partisan rhetoric, talking points and briefing papers are the improvements for children and students from poor families struggling to access educational opportunity and economic security.

President Johnson, with his teacher, Kate Deadrich Loney, signs ESEA.
President Lyndon B. Johnson, with his childhood teacher Kate Deadrich Loney, signs ESEA.

Championed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the historic and wide-ranging campaign, also known as the The Great Society initiative, has cut the poverty rate by nearly 40 percent since the 1960s and kept millions from falling into poverty during the Great Recession. By making funding contingent on implementing reforms in  education and elsewhere, the federal government was able to get states to make changes many had resisted until then.

Addressing Congress on March 16, 1964, President Johnson said;

We are fully aware that this program will not eliminate all the poverty in America in a few months or a few years. Poverty is deeply rooted and its causes are many. But this program will show the way to new opportunities for millions of our fellow citizens. It will provide a lever with which we can begin to open the door to our prosperity for those who have been kept outside.

President Johnson was right. Poverty remains  an issue and struggling communities too often have high dropout rates and too few highly qualified teachers and education support professionals. Nevertheless, the War on Poverty has had some noteworthy and far-reaching education milestones:

  • The Civil Rights Act authorized federal authorities to sue for the desegregation of schools and to withhold federal funds from education institutions that practiced segregation. The law was central to the desegregation of the south.
  • The Elementary and Secondary Act (ESEA), designed to improve achievement among poor and disadvantaged students, was the first ever general aid-to-education program adopted by Congress. Among the programs included in ESEA is Title I, which serves 17 million students.
  • Head Start was launched to help children from low-income families arrive at school ready to learn. Currently, Head Start and Early Head Start serve nearly a million children.
  • Upward Bound, a program that stressed reading, writing, and extracurricular activities, was designed to encourage low-income high school students to attend college.
  • The Higher Education Act provided the first congressionally approved scholarships to undergraduate students, targeting access to postsecondary opportunities for lower and middle-income families and including the Work Study Program.
  • The establishment of bilingual education for non-English speaking children. In 2009-10, the most recent data available, there were 4.45 million limited-English-proficient (LEP) students being served by bilingual education programs.
  • The expansion of education services for children with disabilities.

President Barack Obama, in a statement issued last week, lauded the War on Poverty, but admitted “our work is far from over.”

Said the president:

In the richest nation on Earth, far too many children are still born into poverty, far too few have a fair shot to escape it, and Americans of all races and backgrounds experience wages and incomes that aren’t rising, making it harder to share in the opportunities a growing economy provides. That does not mean, as some suggest, abandoning the War on Poverty. In fact, if we hadn’t declared “unconditional war on poverty in America,” millions more Americans would be living in poverty today. Instead, it means we must redouble our efforts to make sure our economy works for every working American.

Next week: Market-based reforms and block grants, or targeted assistance: Which is better at addressing income inequality and educational opportunity?  

Reader Comments

  1. At least one article that may be missing is a one week course on how
    to study. I have some ideas on History and its setup. It would probable take at least one person per subject for grade school; middle school; and High school. I am sure there are other kids like
    myself that were not allowed to do homework, especially low income

  2. Why does your article mention that poverty stricken areas are lacking highly qualified teachers? Do you not think that we, as teachers, are having enough trouble with politicians, corporations and education reformers spouting this rhetoric? I would expect my NEA to defend teachers! I am so disappointed in this organization!

  3. Why has the poverty rate gone up 2.5% under or current president? Years after the Great Recession ended, 46.5 million Americans are still living in poverty, according to a Census Bureau report released Tuesday; from a CNN article. Acoording to an NYTime article in the 50 years of the “New Deal” poverty levels have gone from 19% to 15%. Where is this article getting 40%? No one talks about the difference of those who where on poverty in the 60′ and today. A majority of those in poverty today have Cable TV, Microwave ovens, washers and dryers, cell phone. How can you compare today’s proverty to that of 50 years ago. I am sure my family members would have enjoyed the poverty level today over that in the 60’s

    1. The “war on poverty” was in the process of systematically being dismantled since Reagan — and we wonder why it didn’t work? The fact is, back in the 1970s, welfare benefits were brought up to the poverty line, and govt. opened the doors to education and job skills training for our poorest. As a result, some 80% of AFDC recipients actually used these opportunities, and were able to voluntarily quit welfare for jobs by the time their children started school. Welfare was very successful, and as some older people might recall, that was precisely the problem. A campaign was launched to nurture middle class resentment against the poor. Based on the notion that poor people couldn’t possibly succeed as a result of their own abilities and capabilities, the idea that the poor must be succeeding as a result of “special privileges” was spread and encouraged in a way that made the middle class fear the poor would be given their jobs. This brought us to the Reagan administration, which was the start of the upward redistribution of America’s collective wealth (tax dollars). The poor, of course, did not have the means to speak up on their own behalf, so the middle class had no reason not to believe the most bizarre claims in the class war. This class war, middle against the poor, was necessary to take public attention away from the massive chunk of the budget that then went into welfare for the rich/corporations. What our generation did, in a nutshell: We looked at the policies and programs that took the US to its height of wealth AND productivity, from FDR to Reagan, and chose to reverse course.

    2. The 1/14 issue of American Prospect has articles about this, which appear to be thoroughly researched, subjects followed for about 10 years and the most reasonable explanation to the why of the poverty today in much of America. Many of those who came from slavery, as well as many who settled in places like Appalachia, were in poverty from the very beginning with few who were able to escape from it. These articles show a study of such families; those mothers who had never escaped had less parenting skills, which lessened with each generation. Their children tested lower on cognitive skills. Those mothers, who had, on the other hand, grown up middle class, who raised children in poverty had more parenting skills and their children higher cognitive skills. The longer generations stayed in poverty, the lower the parenting skills, the less likely for any kind of stable home life or awareness of society, school or what it takes to get out of poverty.
      American Prospect also has excellent articles, also well researched & studied over time, that show how extremely important full day early childhood education from 3 years old is to the success of that child. This is true especially to those children that come from poverty in their educational development and future. California and New Jersey are the only two states who have had it going for long enough to study (I think this is right). Chris Christy was ordered by the state court to fund it, he refused, took it to the Supreme Court and was told to fund it-which he did, but only halfway. Both states have the population in favor, and certainly, it has been a god-send to the working poor as well as the children. I urge everyone interested in children and education to read American Prospect this month.

    3. There is no way to discount the rise in poverty today was caused by the deregulation of banks- which caused a worldwide economic melt down. Thousands of people lost their retirement savings when the stock market fell-not just private investments but their company/city/county retirement funds that were invested there were lost.
      Many people who lost their jobs because of the economy also lost their homes and became homeless.
      With two unfunded wars, bailing out the banks, and having lowered the taxes on the top 1% to the lowest they had been since 1925 to 1933, the ruling party in Congress felt there was no money to help the families who were now in dire straights through no fault of their own……and they became part of the poverty count. This did NOT happen under Obama, but Bush. Obama inherited the mess. And still Congress will not raise taxes on that top 1%, who are paying on average (IRS) 14%, who also made huge profits on stocks & companies of the war industrial complex for those very wars and have GAINED ground while the rest of the country has lost ground economically. The gap between the wealthy and the rest of the population has never been wider than it is today. And the policies of the Republican Party will keep it there.

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