Thinking About the Poor   /   Fall 2014   /    Thinking About The Poor

Poverty and Paradox

Alice O’Connor

Wealth (Il benessere), c. 1960–1964, by Bepi (Giuseppe) Romagnoni (1930–64); Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images.

Fifty years ago this past August, President Lyndon B. Johnson officially launched the War on Poverty by signing the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. Based on the recommendations of a task force appointed in the wake of Johnson’s first State of the Union address, in which he had declared “unconditional war” against economic deprivation, the legislation created the statutory basis for such well-known programs as Job Corps, Head Start, federal legal services, community-based health centers, and, most controversially, the Community Action Program, mandated to assure “maximum feasible participation” of the poor in local program planning. It also established the federal Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to run the new programs, and to represent poor people’s interests within federal, state, and local government bureaucracies. Although modest in funding in comparison to initiatives run through more established federal agencies, the OEO and its associated programs would serve as both the headquarters of the War on Poverty and an emblem of the Great Society’s more expansive and far-reaching social welfare initiatives—including food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid, federal aid to education, housing and urban development, and key provisions in civil rights law. It would also serve as a prime target of political attack for those who, in words made famous by Ronald Reagan in a later State of the Union address, insisted that “poverty won.”11xLyndon B. Johnson, “Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union,” January 8, 1964, American Presidency Project,; Ronald Reagan, “Address before a Joint Session of Congress on the State of the Union,” January 25, 1988, American Presidency Project, As we know from the year-long hearings, program-slashing budget, and recently released report sponsored by the House Budget Committee, chaired by Representative Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, that attack—the war on the War on Poverty—is still being pressed today.22xUS House of Representatives House Budget Committee Majority Staff, The War on Poverty: Fifty Years Later, March 3, 2014,

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