Few would dispute that America’s war on poverty—declared 50 years ago by President Lyndon B. Johnson in his State of the Union Address—is still a long way from over. With 15 percent of Americans today living under the poverty line, only four percent fewer than when Johnson launched his campaign, many might even agree with Ronald Reagan’s stinging assessment that “poverty won.”
The stricter nonpartisan truth is that no war on poverty could have been won any more than it could have been lost. This is not to deny that many of Johnson’s Great Society programs—from expanded food stamps and Medicaid to Head Start and job-promoting tax cuts—did much to improve the quality of poor Americans’ lives. They even made many of those lives possible, and that is no small accomplishment.
Yet for all that he achieved, Johnson did his cause no good when he framed it as a war. To be sure, war metaphors are a common staple of political rhetoric, used to mobilize popular support for worthy campaigns, from J. Edgar Hoover’s war on crime to George W. Bush’s war on terror. But their use often has unintended consequences, as scholars and pundits have frequently observed. The war metaphor creates the expectation of an eventual conclusion, ideally a victory, something that is almost impossible to achieve in dealing with intractable social and existential conditions. It also implies the existence of a clearly defined enemy, but complex systemic problems have elusive and problematic bogeymen. (If our capitalist, free-enterprise system, with its inevitable winners and losers, is partly the problem, do we really want to “defeat” it?) And by implying a clear-cut struggle, the metaphor can demonize those who differ with proposed strategies for victory. Oversimplification, disappointed expectations, frustration, political polarization, and a general weariness have been just a few of the unfortunate outcomes of this protracted metaphorical war.
But arguably the most perverse consequence of Johnson’s rhetoric has been the gradual, almost imperceptible stigmatization of the very people the war was intended to help. If 50 years of fighting haven’t eradicated the problem of poverty, then, many people conclude, isn’t it possible that poor people themselves are the problem? However simplistic, the logic of that conclusion comports all too well with a range of stereotypes, misconceptions, half-truths, and prejudices: The poor are different. Their characters are deficient. Helping them only makes things worse.
At the very least, this blaming-the-victim syndrome has eroded the confidence of poor Americans, convincing many that they are failures. More broadly, it has contributed to something like the disappearance of the poor, in both figurative and concrete ways. Figuratively, people struggling at the bottom of the economic ladder became faceless as they were subsumed under the category of poverty, losing their individuality, distinctiveness, and humanity in the process. More concretely, they increasingly disappeared into their own distinct worlds, growing up, attending schools, working, suffering illnesses, and dying in places that are cut off and separate from those of the better off.
Such a separation, for both tangible and intangible reasons, makes it even harder for the least well off to improve their condition. They live in neighborhoods and communities with schools and other public accommodations that lag well behind those found in the wealthier precincts, which in itself hugely complicates the daily business of getting on. But the lack of face-to-face contact also results in a growing values divide, one that conservative social analyst Charles Murray takes pains to describe in his latest book, Coming Apart (2012).
While Murray focuses on the harm this does to the poor, it also has a debilitating effect on the middle classes and indeed on all Americans. It does so by eroding their sense of the common good, of social solidarity and trust, the absence of which allows a brutal sort of zero-sum thinking to prevail. We see the effects of this declining solidarity in the most obvious ways. It is widely acknowledged, for example, that growing income inequality makes many of the middle class fearful of falling into poverty themselves. But so far that rising concern has failed to produce the political will to mitigate the worst effects of inequality on those who earn the least, even by such modest measures as boosting the federal minimum wage to the inflation-adjusted level of 1964.
The poor are different in only one respect: They have less money. Poverty will not go away. Nor will any war defeat it. But the plight of poor Americans will be less crushing, and less hurtfully defining, if they are seen as part of shared body, as equals as deserving of decent and respectful consideration as any other part of that body. The best way to honor Johnson’s idealism is to declare his war over and, then, to rededicate ourselves to forging a true “one out of many.”