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When a President Fought for the Poor


American President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared war on January 8, 1964. However, he was not at war with another nation – he was at war with poverty.

“Johnson had a deep, personal commitment to helping the poor,” said Richard Filipink, Associate Professor of History at Western Illinois University.

“He himself was poor in his childhood and in his teen years. He had to take a year off college to go to work to afford to pay for college. So he had a great deal of personal empathy for the poor.”

Johnson declared the War on Poverty during his first State of the Union address to Congress.  He felt the country was wealthy enough to eliminate poverty in his lifetime and he proposed doing so by providing the poor with greater educational and job opportunities.

Filipink said LBJ set aside about $1 billion in the federal budget for anti-poverty programs, and Congress that year approved the Economic Opportunity Act. 

Filipink said about 22% of Americans lived in poverty when LBJ took office in November, 1963. He managed to reduce that to around 14% by the time he left office in January, 1969.

However, his War on Poverty and other “Great Society” programs were ultimately derailed by his decision to escalate the War in Viet Nam.

“As Johnson said himself several times, ‘Congress will be much more likely to vote money for the war than for the poor,’” Filipink said, adding that the War in Viet Nam tied up money that could have been spent on domestic social programs. 

Filipink considers Johnson’s presidency a missed opportunity.

Credit Rich Egger
Richard Filipink

“He’s a person who had grand visions of what the United States could be. He had the legislative wherewithal to accomplish some of these things.  And (he) just ran into the War in Viet Nam and everything fell apart,” Filipink said.

“And that damage that’s done to Johnson’s presidency has the long-term impact of giving us the Nixon administration and the economic problems of the 1970s.”

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Filipink said no political leaders have tackled poverty in the past 50 years because there are no votes in helping the poor, who have little or no lobbying power.  He said the current talk of cutting the amount of food stamp funding in the Farm Bill underscores this point.

Filipink said Johnson was well aware the poor had no power, yet felt it was his responsibility as president to take the lead on poverty issues.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.