war on poverty

Nearly 60 years later, what is the legacy of Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty?

Fifty-eight years ago, Lyndon B. Johnson took a helicopter to the small, rundown Kentucky town of Inez in the heart of coal country.

The landing field reserved for the president was an abandoned miniature golf course.

Johnson brought reporters from Time and Life magazines along on the trip, because he had big plans, and he wanted the media to cover an announcement: A declaration of war on poverty.

When the president disembarked from the helicopter, he walked with the press corps to a dilapidated tar-paper house with a tin roof and fake brick siding.

A man named Tom Fletcher lived there.

Johnson led the reporters to Fletcher’s shack, leaned down and said, “Tell me your story.”

Fletcher was an unemployed sawmill operator. He had a first-grade education and was unable to read or write. He lived in a home without plumbing with his wife and his eight kids.

Johnson stopped at Fletcher’s house because he thought Fletcher embodied American poverty. In Inez and the surrounding area, the poverty rate was over 60%. A third of the population faced chronic unemployment.

It was with this backdrop that Johnson walked off the porch and said: “Today I’m declaring war on poverty, and the goal is total victory.”

It was a historic moment, because regardless of our political opinions, we all want to fight for Tom Fletcher. We all want to eliminate poverty.

Nearly 60 years later, what is the legacy of Johnson’s war on poverty?

By at least one very important metric, the War on Poverty has been an utter failure: It has discouraged people from pursuing meaningful work.

“Nonwork is the surest route to poverty,” according to researchers from the Brookings Institute, as written in a recent report titled, “The War on Poverty, What Went Wrong?”

This is important, because the basis of LBJ’s government programs was supporting people who did not work. The war on work created welfare programs, providing financial incentives to be unemployed.

The Brookings study notes that “unless young people get more education, work more […] government spending will be minimally effective in fighting poverty.”

Exactly. The problem with Johnson’s War on Poverty was that LBJ actually created a war on work. We need to call a cease fire and re-examine what will truly lift people up out of poverty.

Fifty-eight years after the president walked off Tom Fletcher’s porch, our fight is the same. We need to continue to fight against poverty.

But what Tom Fletcher taught us is that government programs will never solve poverty. Only education and access to jobs can do that.

And that’s a fight we can win.

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Matt Paprocki

President @illinoispolicy the nation’s leading state-based think tank.