Poverty in the Sixties
In 1960, over one fifth of the population of the United States was living below the poverty line. Congress attempted to address the issue in 1961, by passing the Rural Areas Development Act. The act provided loans for low-income farmers to expand land holdings; created new rural jobs through community projects such as home repair and water-system construction; encouraged new industry in rural areas; and provided funding for the occupational retraining of farmers. It was not until the publication of Michael Harrington's 1962 book, The Other American: Poverty in the United States, that the extent and characteristics of the "new poverty" which afflicted at least 39 million Americans was exposed to the general public. Shocking in its revelations and eloquent in its testimony, Harrington's book influenced many, including President Johnson, to make a serious effort to eradicate poverty from the United States.
The Great Society
In his first State of the Union address, on January 8, 1964, Lyndon Johnson promised to wage a "War on Poverty." Both Kennedy and Johnson had supported the use of governmental power and funds to help the oppressed. Nevertheless, Johnson exceeded Kennedy in his efforts to promote a campaign against poverty. This may be related to the fact that Johnson had been exposed to the pain of poverty as a child, whereas JFK had not. A month later, Johnson appointed Sargent Shriver to lead federal anti-poverty efforts. On March 16, 1964, Johnson presented a nearly $1 billion War on Poverty program to Congress. Johnson signed the bill, the first piece legislation to originate from his administration, on August 20th. In 1965, Congress expanded Social Security to include Medicaid and Medicare. Medicaid provided health care coverage for low-income Americans. Medicare helped pay for the medical needs of Americans over 65, as well as some severaly disabled individuals under 65. The Medicare program covered 17 million people eligible under social security, as well as 2 million not qualified under the old-age, survivors and disability insurance program in effect up to that point. Johnson signed the Medicare Act on July 30, 1965 , in the Truman Library with former President Truman in attendance, as a tribute to him as the first president to propose a federal program for heath insurance under Social Security.
The Johnson Administration's anti-poverty policies were designed to create a "great society" by eradicating poverty. In addition to expanding social security, and a number of programs were created, including the Head Start program to give disadvantaged children extra help before they entered school; the Job Corps program to train high school dropouts; the Teachers Corps program; the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program; an adult education program; Medicare and Medicaid. In addition, the federal government sponsored loans to low-income farmers and businessmen, approved $1.6 billion in aid to the Appalachia region, and helped support the improvement inner-city ghettos. Between 1965 and 1970, nearly $10 billion was committed to the Great Society programs.
Poor People's March
Although they were encouraged by federal efforts on behalf of the poor, many activists were concerned about the difficulties of the poor. There was no organized way in which the poor of the United States could make their voices heard. Unlike the movement for the civil rights of African Americans, there were no recognized lobbying groups for the rights and interests of poor Americans. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., attempted to address this deficiency by helping plan a "poor people's march" on Washington. The march was to be the first step in Dr. King's last project — a multi-ethnic coalition assault on poverty. Although he was assassinated before he had a chance to lead the march, his friend and colleague, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, led the protest march in his memory. Lacking the rallying power of Dr. King, without a strong focus, and in the midst of national mourning for the death of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy, the march and subsequent establishment of "Resurrection City" were of limited value in bringing about action. On June 19, 1968, just over 2 months after Dr. King's assassination and only 11 days after Robert Kennedy's assassination, 50,000 people marched to Washington to call attention to the plight of poor Americans. Hundreds of protesters built wooden shanties on the grass and, in respect to Rev. Abernathy's wishes, maintained a peaceful protest. Within a week, however, the peaceful protest broke into a violent, vandalizing mob as, on June 25, troops were deployed to the area to restore order, and Rev. Abernathy was arrested. Abernathy pleaded no contest when charged with unlawful assembly, despite his efforts to keep the demonstration non-violent.
Persistence of Poverty
When Johnson first proposed his anti-poverty measures, it seemed entirely possible that poverty could be eradicated from the richest nation in the world. Between 1959 and 1969, the number of people classified as being in or near poverty dropped from 39 million to 24 million; as a percentage of population, the number fell from 22.4 to 12.1. By the end of the decade, however, it was clear that, although the policies implemented had alleviated the suffering of many, poverty remained a part of the American landscape.
Several explanation have been offered to explain the failure of the Great Society programs to eliminate poverty. Some commentators feel that poverty is a social ill that can never be eliminated. Others feel that, despite the general acceptance of government involvement in American life, the idea of government-sponsored relief from poverty was contrary to the American ideal of the rugged individual succeeding by individual effort. Still others describe a deep-seated American opposition to providing income for the poor. The Great Society programs have been criticized for providing no articulated "safety net" to guarantee that no American would be allowed to live in degrading poverty. Another criticism is that potentially helpful poverty solutions proposed by economists, such as Milton Friedman's proposal for a negative income tax, were not included. The major explanation for the persistence of poverty in the face of the Great Society, however, was the effect of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Military spending diverted funds that might have been used to mount a powerful assault against poverty. In addition, the inflationary effects of the war placed greater pressure on the entire nation, including the poor.
Although starvation and other extreme symptoms had been severely reduced, poverty was still a major problem in the United States by the end of the 1960s. Subsequent attempts to eradicate poverty or at least reduce its severity would be haunted by the ambivalent victory in the War on Poverty. Johnson's dream of a "great society" would remain largely a dream.