War on Poverty Launched 1965

JFK Addressing the Naiton

In his State of the Union address, President Johnson announced the launching of a comprehensive plan to wage war on poverty. On August 24, 1965, he signed the Economic Opportunity Act into law.


In the early 1960s, the problem of poverty came to the fore in the American consciousness in television programs like Edward R. Murrow’s "Harvest of Shame" and books like Michael Harrington’s The Other America. In January 1963, Dwight Macdonald wrote an article in the New Yorker, entitled “Our Invisible Poor.” In it, he wrote: “In the last year we seem to have suddenly awakened, rubbing our eyes like Rip Van Winkle, to the fact that mass poverty persists, that it is one of our two gravest social problems.”

President Kennedy read many poverty studies and concluded that some action needed to be taken to attack the systematic causes of poverty. He asked Walter Heller of the Council of Economic Advisors to develop a program. He brought in Robert Lapman, who had done a landmark study of poverty in 1957, to update his numbers. Lapman returned with the most comprehensive statistical report on poverty in the United States to date. The report became part of President Johnson's economic report of 1964. After the Kennedy assassination, President Johnson gave his full support to create a program to combat poverty.

In January, President Johnson made poverty one of the cornerstones of his State of the Union address. He stated in the speech: "Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope - some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity. This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join me in that effort. It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it."

Suddenly, poverty was a high priority; The only problem was that the administration had no specific plan of action to fight poverty. Johnson convinced Sargeant Shriver to head the War on Poverty. Shriver was told that he had an initial budget of $500 million. Shriver gathered as many experts as he could to develop a program. Their program focused on job training, community-based poverty programs, support for low-income farms and the creation of an Office of Economic Opportunity. A special program was created under the Office of Economic Opportunity, called Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), something of a domestic version of the Peace Corps.

The administration’s strategy for passing the anti-poverty bill was to emphasize the problem of rural poverty and how the bill's proposals would fight it. Lady Bird Johnson toured impoverished rural areas as part of the administration's policy. The key was not to give the impression that poverty bill was aimed only at inner-city African-Americans. The strategy was successful, the bill was passed, and on August 24, 1964, the President signed the Economic Opportunity Act. Unfortunately, the amount of money allocated was only a small percentage of what policymakers knew was needed to end poverty. The hope was that in subsequent years, the funds could be added. Unfortunately, the war in Vietnam made that impossible.s