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Lyndon Johnson State of the Union Address - War on Poverty (January 8, 1964)

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Published on May 1, 2013

The War on Poverty is the unofficial name for legislation first introduced by United States President Lyndon B. Johnson during his State of the Union address on January 8, 1964. This legislation was proposed by Johnson in response to a national poverty rate of around nineteen percent. The speech led the United States Congress to pass the Economic Opportunity Act, which established the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to administer the local application of federal funds targeted against poverty.

As a part of the Great Society, Johnson believed in expanding the government's role in education and health care as poverty reduction strategies.[1] These policies can also be seen as a continuation of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, which ran from 1933 to 1935, and the Four Freedoms of 1941.

The popularity of a war on poverty waned after the 1960s. Deregulation, growing criticism of the welfare state, and an ideological shift to reducing federal aid to impoverished people in the 1980s and 1990s culminated in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, which, as claimed President Bill Clinton, "end[ed] welfare as we know it." Prof. Tony Judt, the late historian, said in reference to the earlier proposed title of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act that "a more Orwellian title would be hard to conceive" and attributed the decline in the popularity of the Great Society as a policy to its success, as fewer people feared hunger, sickness, and ignorance. Additionally, fewer people were concerned with ensuring a minimum standard for all citizens and social liberalism.[2]

Nonetheless, the legacy of the War on Poverty policy initiative remains in the continued existence of such federal programs as Head Start, Volunteers in Service to America, TRIO (program), and Job Corps. Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 -- August 20, 1964 Social Security Act of 1965 -- July 19, 1965

The Office of Economic Opportunity was the agency responsible for administering most of the War on Poverty programs created during Johnson's Administration, including VISTA, Job Corps, Head Start, Legal Services and the Community Action Program. The OEO was established in 1964 and quickly became a target of both left-wing and right-wing critics of the War on Poverty. Directors of the OEO included Sargent Shriver, Bertrand Harding, and Donald Rumsfeld.

The OEO launched Project Head Start as an eight-week summer program in 1965. The project was designed to help end poverty by providing preschool children from low-income families with a program that would meet emotional, social, health, nutritional,and psychological needs. Head Start was then transferred to the Office of Child Development in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (later the Department of Health and Human Services) by the Nixon Administration in 1969.

President Johnson also announced a second project to follow children from the Head Start program. This was implemented in 1967 with Project Follow Through, the largest educational experiment ever conducted.[3]

The policy trains disadvantaged and at-risk youth and has provided more than 2 million disadvantaged young people with the integrated academic, vocational, and social skills training they need to gain independence and get quality, long-term jobs or further their education. Job Corps continues to help 70,000 youths annually at 122 Job Corps centers throughout the country. Besides vocational training, many Job Corps also offer GED programs as well as high school diplomas and programs to get students into college.

President Johnson's "War on Poverty" speech was delivered at a time of recovery (the poverty level had fallen from 22.4% in 1959 to 19% in 1964 when the War on Poverty was announced) and it was viewed by critics as an effort to get the United States Congress to authorize social welfare programs.

Some economists, including Milton Friedman, have argued that Johnson's policies actually had a negative impact on the economy because of their interventionist nature. Adherents of this school of thought recommend that the best way to fight poverty is not through government spending but through economic growth.

In the decade following the 1964 introduction of the war on poverty, poverty rates in the U.S. dropped to their lowest level since comprehensive records began in 1958: from 17.3% in the year the Economic Opportunity Act was implemented to 11.1% in 1973. They have remained between 11 and 15.2% ever since.

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