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American Presidency: War on Poverty

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Approximately five decades ago, in the midst of, the mass media, unprecedented national prosperity, policymakers, and the American public made a startling discovery that millions of the Americans were living in poverty. In January 1964, the American president by then, President Lyndon B Johnson declared a ”War on Poverty” slogan that led to the introduction of initiatives designed to improve the health, jobs, education, skills, and access to economic resources. At the time, the rate of poverty in America was approximately 19 percent and was falling rapidly. This marked the beginning of numerous actions by the key players in poverty reduction that has seen the rate of poverty in America to reduce by around 75 percent, bestowing to Chappell (102). The industrial and economic boom following the World War II declared America the wealthiest nation globally; however, not all the Americans had the opportunity to share in the good fortune.

The role played by President Lyndon in War on Poverty

The administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson declared unconditional war on poverty in America that led to the inception of numerous programs to alleviate poverty. The legacy left by President Lyndon B. Johnson war on poverty clearly demonstrates that the programs have offered the opportunity and economic security to millions of Americans. President Lyndon B. Johnson established investments and initiatives in war on poverty declaration that was built on the existing foundation of progressive social policies enacted during the new Deal era, for example, the Social Security Act, small-scale nutritional assistance initiatives, and early training and health programs (Dodds 17). These investments were enacted with the bipartisan support that continues to fight poverty in American societies today.

The administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson acting on war on poverty spurred the creation of programs and policies designed to reduce educational inequalities by improving the affordability and access to college, especially for low-income students. The most notable program implemented in the administration of Johnson was the Pell Grant, which was established through the Higher Education Act 1965 and continues to provide low-income students grants to attend college. The focus of President Lyndon B. Johnson to educational access and affordability to low-income households significantly enrolled fewer affluent students of ages 16 to 24 in colleges during 1.9 million students received Pell Grants (Dodds 19).

The main reason for starting the war on poverty program, according to Watts (34), was to realize social and economic justice for all Americans. President Lyndon B. Johnson established federal programs across the country through foundations and private sector initiatives and grassroots political efforts to implement war on poverty declaration. Therefore, the struggle for war on poverty took the direction of organizing streets of Newark and California fields, formation of national welfare rights movement and a series of chronicles of events captured the vision of war on poverty in America.

While the war on poverty was started to provide an opportunity for the poor, there is a different school of thought that expressed that the initiative purposefully served social, economic and political interest of the status quo. Nelson (36) indicates that besides the personal interest of President Lyndon, numerous factors engineered the start of the war on poverty declaration. Various publications, such as the 1962 publication of Michael Harrington’s “The Other America,” made the issue a public debate that brought the matter to the attention of President Lyndon.

The war on poverty declaration was also implemented through the establishment of financial aid programs by the federal government that increased the share of low-income students enrolling in higher education. Research evidence shows that need-based financial aids increase college enrollment among the low-income students, thus reducing their chances of dropping out of educational institutions (Jones 87). The standard reasoning perhaps was that educational support could strengthen the economy since having increased college education increases employment wages.

Therefore, President Lyndon B. Johnson opted to use the approach of making education more affordable and accessible for the low-income families by providing financial aids and other programs to fight poverty. Truly, young adults with only high school diplomas are nearly three times more likely to remain unemployed and earn less than their degree holders’ counterparts. Essentially, President Johnson made tremendous efforts in his administration by signing the four major pieces of legislation into law. In particular, the signing of The Food Stamp Act of 1964, The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, The Social Security Amendments of 1965, and The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 marked the beginning of war on poverty declaration campaign (Nelson 39).

President Lyndon B. Johnson also signed Medicaid bill into law in 1965 that was a public health insurance program, exclusively funded by the state and federal government to cover the vulnerable households including pregnant women and people with disabilities. The program first included 4 million individuals and has since expanded covering 62 million people, including 32 million children (Mari 12). The reduction of poverty through health incentives initiated by President Lyndon B. Johnson was vital for the low-income women in pregnancy-related services and family planning that in overall improved child health outcomes reduce infant mortality rate and improve maternal health.

The legacy of President Lyndon B. Johnson has made the Medicaid program the largest source of coverage for community-based long-term care and nursing home services and support. Today, Milkis (17) reports, more than 60 percent of the individuals living in nursing homes are covered by Medicaid and nearly 10 million elderly Americans and children with disabilities receives long-term services and support, thanks to the significant contribution of President Lyndon B. Johnson by signing the Medicaid bill into law.

Constitutional Aids and Impediments

President Lyndon B. Johnson made poverty a national concern barely after two months in office. According to Milkis (22), the significant constitutional aid that made the declaration a success was the provisions of creating set in motion of bills and acts. The constitution mandates the Congress to bring bills to the House for debate and necessary action. Besides, the law provided the president with the powers to ascend into bills and make them into laws. Following the constitutional mandate, President Lyndon B. Johnson, through the Congress, created programs such as Food Stamps, Medicare and Medicaid, and Work Study, which still exist today. Furthermore, the constitution provided the civil rights movement that demanded economic reform through policy implementation. The national civil rights, based on their constitutional rights, focused their attention on economic inequality, essentially, in relation to the nation’s pervasive patterns of racial discrimination (Milkis 22-23). For instance, Martin Luther King frequently addressed the relationship between discrimination and poverty.

This provides an example of civil rights provided by the Constitution that led to the pressing of economic reform. The metaphor of war provided a greater political appeal, and as James (102) suggests, it marshaled the nation’s resources to combat, defeat poverty. The launch of the war on poverty presented constitutional advantage in dramatizing the issue and pushing the legislation through the Congress. The constitution creates an impediment to war on poverty by prohibiting the state legislature from authorizing any political corporation of the state.

The state cannot grant its money or lend its credit to any individual, corporation or association. The Constitution indicates that the legislature shall have no power to authorize or make any grant of the public moneys to any party (James 105). Such provisions in our constitution prevent the gratuitous application of public funds to private individuals. However, the war of poverty requires corporation between the private and public entities for successful implementation of programs. Therefore, the fact that the constitution bars the legislature from providing credit to the private is an impediment to the war on poverty.

Success and Failures

The investments and initiatives spearheaded by the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson reduced economic hardship in America. The success of Johnson is clearly indicated by the increased educational attainment in America, reduced hunger and economic hardship, and paved pathway to the middle class that has made it possible for millions of Americans to escape poverty. Indeed, the war on poverty declaration made tremendous groundwork for the modern-day social safety net that saw the America undergoing transformative changes since 1960 (Milkis 20). Also, President Lyndon B. Johnson promoted war on poverty by building on policies geared to develop the middle class, including investment in education and infrastructure, strong labor market institutions, and a robust minimum wage.

While success is obviously readable, the failures of the President Lyndon B. Johnson on the war on poverty declaration, conceivably, were to keep the institutions formed abreast with the constitutional mandates. Undeniably, most of our institutions and policies have failed to keep up with the changes in America society. Therefore, there has been a significant increase in unequal economic growth and income inequality among the citizens. Besides, Peter et al. (23) writes that failures can be observed based on the insufficient access to jobs and education, and significant demographic shift have transformed our economy as well as permeating our social fabric. As a result, our necessity to update our approach to eradication of poverty to match the 21st century has been underscored to speak the least. Although the war on poverty has stressed education and training to lift poor families, it has failed to address the developing welfare crisis and dissatisfaction of Americans with the system. Peter et al. (24-25) reports that welfare mothers have begun to demand benefits in protest marches and demonstrations across the nation.


The aim for economic growth by President Lyndon B. Johnson and permanent war on poverty faced trends such as technology and globalization that displaced a number of workers, weakening the labor unions, thus lowering wages. Likewise, the choices of policy that lead to a great recession such as in 1980s exacerbated these trends. The policy of enacting excessive tax cuts for the wealthy promoted the decline f the minimum wage that weakened the ability of the workers to join the unions without retaliation, therefore the decision makers have accelerated economic growth at the top and increased inequality. These obstacles mention some of the trends that negatively affected the effective implementation of the war on poverty programs for permanent gain. After the war on poverty declaration, national income sharing for the top individuals has doubled (Watt 52). In fact, Patterson (77) hints, national income inequality is the major obstacle to poverty eradication in the current century.

Lack of policy reforms is the reason behind low economic growth and the major obstacle on the path of war on poverty declaration. Despite the projections on poverty elimination, our policies have failed to keep pace with significant social and economic changes leading an increased income inequality. Likewise, the cost of education has increased, making increasingly hard for low-income households to take their children to schools, limiting the potential for higher social mobility. Following the declaration of President Lyndon B. Johnson on the war on poverty in America, there was a hefty duty left to the Congress owing to the constitutionality of the matter. Through the constitutional powers, the Congress passed the bipartisan Economic Opportunity Act 1964 as well as legislation of significant civil rights.

Constitutionally, the Congress is the arm of the government responsible for legislation. As such, their role in legislation significantly promoted the war on poverty administrative declaration by President Lyndon B. Johnson. According to Jones (81), the legislative framework undertaken by the Congress led to the expansion of the economic opportunities through health programs, anti-poverty bodies, educational programs, and favorable employment policies. The Congress, according to Dodds (21) employed the constitutional powers to promote war on poverty slogan in the administrations of Nixon and Johnson. In particular, legislation of the Congress laid the foundation for the modern-day safety net, including the Medicare, Head Start, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and Expanded Social Security. These programs kept millions of American families out of poverty and made college education more accessible.

Furthermore, the Congress made legislations that aimed at strengthening the American economy where the gains are shared equitably and committing to programs and policies that are beneficial. The legislative measures to improve the economy resulted in the reduction of the gap between the poor and the rich, raised the minimum wage and created better quality jobs for the citizens. The expansion of economic opportunity and income support initiatives cut the poverty in the country. Over President Lyndon’s administration, the Congress constantly renewed the national commitment to reduce poverty. In particular, the constitutional birth of a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Coalition on Human Needs made tremendous contribution to cutting the poverty (Milkis 25).

Besides, the Congress created the first ever permanent Food Stamp Program in 1964 that provided monthly benefits to low-income families, essentially, those with children that were struggling for their daily meals. Brinkley (81) indicates that the Congress strengthened the school lunch program in 1966 alongside establishing a pilot version of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program foe Infants, Women, and Children (WIC) in 1972 under the Nixon administration. The significant legislative contribution to the Congress in war on poverty declaration was timely and necessary. Research shows that the programs increased the nutritional assistance of the Americans with a significant percentage.

According to Nelson (87) the Food Stamp Program, currently referred as the SNAP, continues to be one of the most effective anti-poverty and anti-hunger initiatives in the United States. Indeed, nutritional assistance is a vital program for the families struggling to put food on the table. While current data indicates that 49 million Americans, 16 million children included, struggle with hunger, SNAP has provided significant assistance that has led to the decrease of food security by 5-10 percent (Nelson 91).

According to the study, in 2012 alone, SNAP kept 5 million people out of poverty, and without the contribution of the Congress, perhaps the poverty rate in America would have been numerically higher. Based on the Congress re-evaluation, the SNAP program focused on the most vulnerable families and provides income support for low-wage workers. The Congress observed that approximately 75 percent of the SNAP recipients to be families with children and people with disabilities (Davies 201).

Survey from the U.S Department of Agriculture indicates that SNAP serves a powerful economic stimulus that generates $9 in economic activity. In a nutshell, the Congress made efforts based on four pieces of legislation; The Food Stamp Act of 1964, The Social Security Amendments of 1965, The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, and The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 that together mentioned the contribution of the Congress in war on poverty contribution (Davies 204).

The constitutional offices created in the judiciary promoted the war on poverty declaration in various channels. Firstly, the courts, especially the Supreme Court was instrumental in providing interpretations of the laws and amendments that followed the war on poverty declaration. For instance, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court through a prescribed affidavit of indiquency provided the definition of indigent persons. The poverty guidelines provided by the Supreme Court validated that a person whose income, after taxes is one hundred and twenty-five percent or less of the current poverty threshold annually established by community service administration was eligible for consideration of the war on poverty programs (Nelson 93).

Therefore, the courts constitutionally provided the federal poverty guidelines based on the federal register for relevant pursuant. War on poverty supporters observed that the US courts should make their rulings in favor of the poor and assist in strengthening programs and protections of the low-income families. Besides, the US courts aided in decision-making based on the established laws on war on poverty that ensured proper implementation of the programs to the target group and eliminated corruption. According to Jones (92), the courts have complementary roles in promoting development and fighting poverty.

Today, the politics of America is governed by a multi-party system. The Republican Party and the Democratic Party are the most powerful. However, parties such as Libertarian, Reform, Constitution, and Natural Law exist but cannot sponsor a candidate in presidential elections. Political parties are important in the fight against poverty in America. The issue of poverty has been a central debate of the political parties as politicians seek to woo voters.

Political parties have a made tremendous awareness on the war on poverty policies, thus influencing the public opinion on the issue of war on poverty. The political parties through their leadership have a natural advantage in knowing and understanding the resources and needs of their own territories. Besides, the leaders can provide better local public goods to meet the demands of their supporters (Nelson 97). Political parties have promoted the debate on governance based on the institutions of the national state to push the war on poverty. In fact, the political parties, especially, the opposition is very critical in keeping the government abreast to deliver on their mandates of serving the American citizens.

Conferring to Patterson (79), the opposition in both the Senate and the Congress has played a crucial role in joining the other legislatures in passing laws on war on poverty. The role of political parties in sponsoring candidates that can advocate the issues affecting the Americans can also not be ignored. Essentially, President Johnson came into power by virtue of the political party sponsorship. Through this, he was able to declare the war on poverty in his administration and used the numerical strength of his political party to pass four critical bills that enforced the war on poverty declaration. Furthermore, political parties provide the required competency in monitoring the government budget and ensure that key issues such as poverty are given priority.

For instance, the government of President Obama allocated 19 billion US dollars towards poverty eradication. This required the numerical strength of the political parties to approve the budget and focus on the key issues affecting the Americans. Political parties have focused on the different sides of the poverty equation. The Democrats focus on economic inequalities and processed government programs while the Republicans focused on the championship of values of personality and responsibility as well as family breakdown. Therefore, the political parties provide platform for fresh approaches to the war on poverty declaration.

Poverty has previously constituted the central political campaign vocabulary in American politics. The Democratic nominating contest saw the mentioning of poverty a staple of stump of the presidential candidates’ speeches. The voters that from the public are often ready to listen to a fresh approach for assisting the poor Americans lift themselves from poverty. Public opinion on the approach that should be employed in uplifting low-income families is an important facet of the war on poverty declaration of 1964. Pundits that argue that poverty is not an important concern to the public underestimate the public concern. A study that sought public opinion on poverty reported that a whopping 78 percent indicated that they were more interested in anti-poverty policies.

The public considers the position of the candidate on poverty and hunger when casting their votes (Mari 12-13). Therefore, the public plays a significant role in voting the leaders with sound approaches on poverty issues, thus contributing to the war on poverty declaration. Previously, the public has expressed their willingness to spend more money to achieve results in fighting hunger and poverty. According to a poll taken in 2001, 85 percent of the Americans supported the expansion of subsidized healthcare, minimum wage and spending more money on medical care for the poor (Mari 13). Besides, the public has ascended to the increment of Child’s Health Insurance Program and Medicaid.

The public has in the past expressed worries that the government is spending a little money on war on poverty that has seen the Obama administration increasing funds for the war on poverty. Also, the American support the faith-based programs and suggests that there should be a sharing between the government and non-governmental efforts to solve the poverty issue. Public participation in the bills that gets enacted into law is also important as they provide insights into the key areas of concern owing to the fact that they have raw data on the issue of poverty than their leaders.

The Role of the Press

The significance of the press in creating awareness of the war on poverty also forms a significant facet of the war on poverty declaration. The media has the capacity to reach the indigenous people that according to Chappell (112) play a significant role in fighting poverty and hunger. Essentially, the traditional knowledge that is currently highlighted in Rome, for instance, has been referred to as a “unique global gathering”. The press significantly brings together the participants of war on poverty and the self-identified indigenous groups. The press through communication and information development is a force multiplier of the American’s goal of war on poverty and promoting shared prosperity. The data collected by the press can also be a game changer in the fight against poverty and hunger.

The press reduces the cost of connectivity and access to data, especially for the poor who have the potential to transform the poverty structure in America. While the cost of physical movement is high, Chappell (114) writes, the press has created a cheap way of receiving information that is advocated by the federal government to the grassroots. Likewise, the press is a significant function as a monitor of the government. The press conveys information and stores data based on the programs promised by the presidential candidates during campaigns and makes a follow-up research to inform the public about the achievements or failures. Poverty eradication optimists also easily reach out to the public for information on poverty eradication.

The continual evolution of the American poverty has future political implications in the nation. Fifty-one years since the war on poverty declaration was made by President Johnson, today, however, poverty in America differs in various fundamental ways from the poverty that reformers emerged to address five decades ago (Mari, 16). Essentially, the location, socioeconomic characteristics of poverty has shifted dramatically posing significant changes in future politics in America. Therefore, the current poverty in America reflects income inequality in America despite the economic development attained over the five decades. The impact of poverty on educational achievements and health of the American children would result in future economic productivity and higher healthcare cost.

The politic of America would still under the control of the affluent minority that can afford education and maintain the status quo. Income inequality, which is a direct consequence of poverty has promoted the widening the social and political gap between the individuals at the top of the income gradient and the majority at the lower income levels. The future prospects of politicians will less focus on poverty as, for instance, the constructive talk of Gorge W. Bush used the word “poverty” thrice and each time, he referred to poverty in Africa and other developing countries. Likewise, President Obama never talked about poverty in his inaugural address; however, he referred to “poor nations.” Not surprisingly, most governors rarely mention about poverty in their state speeches. In conclusion, the future politicians would barely see a poverty agenda as politically significant either as a potential positive aspect of their campaigns.


Available data indicates that nearly 40 million Americans were living in abject poverty by 1959. Besides, their livelihoods were threatened by the innovations that made the country wealthier. Numerous people lost their jobs following the introduction of machines that played a larger role in the workplace. Therefore, in less than two months after his swearing in, President Lyndon Johnson chose poverty as his domestic administration agenda point of emphasis. The president built on the visions of his predecessor John F. Kennedy during the state union by choosing to fight poverty through expansion of opportunities for the poor through education and training. Five decades down the lane, Americans still suffer a characteristically different poverty due to poor implementation of policies.


Brinkley, Alan. The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War. New York: Vintage Books, 1996

Chappell, Marisa. The War on Welfare: Family, Poverty and Politics in Modern American. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010

Davies, Gareth. “War on Dependency: Liberal Individualism and the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964,” Journal of American Studies, 26 (Aug. 1992), 205–31

Dodds, Graham. Take Up Your Pen: Unilateral Pres. Directives. U. Penn. Press, 2013.

James T. Patterson, America’s Struggle Against Poverty, 1900–1994 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), pp. 105–11.

Jones, Charles O. The American Presidency. New York: Sterling Pub. Co, 2009. Internet resource.

Mari, Christopher, and Paul McCaffrey. The American Presidency. New York: H.W. Wilson Co, 2008. Print.

Milkis, S. & M. Nelson. The Am. Presidency: Origins & Development. 6th ed. CQ, 2012.

Nelson, Michael, ed. The Presidency and the Political System. 10th ed. CQ, 2014

Patterson, James T. America’s Struggle Against Poverty, 1900-1994. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Peter Marris and Martin Rein, Dilemmas of Social Reform: Poverty and Community Action in the United States (New York: Atherton Press, 1967), pp. 20–30; O’Connor, Poverty Knowledge, pp. 127–36.

Watts, Duncan. The American Presidency. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009. Internet resource.

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