Johnson Announces War on Poverty Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson unveiled an ambitious domestic economic agenda in his first state of the union address and moved aggressively in subsequent months to push equal opportunity and social security programs through Congress. The War on Poverty program, as it came to be called, was part of his larger goal of a Great Society.

Summary of Event

In the early 1960’s, poverty stood on the periphery of politics in the United States. Critic Dwight Macdonald’s 1963 review essay in which he discussed Michael Harrington’s The Other America Other America, The (Harrington) (1962) so influenced President John F. Kennedy that Kennedy asked the chair of the Council of Economic Advisors Council of Economic Advisers, U.S. (CEA) to look into how poverty was affecting Americans. War on Poverty Economic policy;United States Great Society Economic Opportunity Act (1964) Social justice Poverty [kw]Johnson Announces War on Poverty (Jan. 8, 1964) [kw]Poverty, Johnson Announces War on (Jan. 8, 1964) [kw]War on Poverty, Johnson Announces (Jan. 8, 1964) War on Poverty Economic policy;United States Great Society Economic Opportunity Act (1964) Social justice Poverty [g]North America;Jan. 8, 1964: Johnson Announces War on Poverty[07920] [g]United States;Jan. 8, 1964: Johnson Announces War on Poverty[07920] [c]Government and politics;Jan. 8, 1964: Johnson Announces War on Poverty[07920] [c]Social issues and reform;Jan. 8, 1964: Johnson Announces War on Poverty[07920] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Jan. 8, 1964: Johnson Announces War on Poverty[07920] [c]Economics;Jan. 8, 1964: Johnson Announces War on Poverty[07920] Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;economic policy Kennedy, John F. [p]Kennedy, John F.;economic policy Heller, Walter W. Macdonald, Dwight Landrum, Phillip Mitchell McNamara, Patrick Vincent Moynihan, Daniel Patrick Powell, Adam Clayton, Jr. Shriver, Sargent Sundquist, James L. Walsh, William F. Yarmolinsky, Adam

Chapter 2 of the CEA’s Economic Report of the President, Economic Report of the President (government report) submitted to Congress by CEA chair Walter W. Heller in January, 1964, estimated that between 33 and 35 million people in the United States lived in poverty. At the time, this number represented about 18 percent of the U.S. population (about 191 million in 1964). Living in “poverty” in the United States meant living with an annual individual income of $1,500 or less or an income of $3,000 or less per family. Approximately 11 million of the poor were children and 22 percent were nonwhite. Nearly half of all nonwhites were poor.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, who took office after Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, declared a war on poverty in his January 8, 1964, state of the union message. Johnson embraced the issue after he heard about the order from Kennedy to address poverty in the United States. On January 31, 1964, Johnson appointed Sargent Shriver as special assistant to organize a president’s task force on poverty. Members of the task force included Adam Yarmolinsky from the Department of Defense, Daniel Patrick Moynihan from the Department of Labor, and James L. Sundquist from the Department of Agriculture.

On March 16, Johnson submitted the Economic Opportunity Bill to Congress with the help of two members of Congress: Georgia Democrat Phillip Mitchell Landrum introduced the bill into the House of Representatives and Michigan Democrat Patrick Vincent McNamara introduced the bill into the Senate. House Education and Labor Committee chair Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., had introduced a similar bill but stepped aside in favor of the version introduced by Landrum. On August 20, after much debate and compromise over issues ranging from states’ rights to federal funding of religious antipoverty organizations, the bill was passed, becoming law as the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964.

President Lyndon B. Johnson takes notes during a cabinet meeting. The president attempted to transform the U.S. economy with his War on Poverty.

(National Archives)

Title II of the act, which created the Community Action Program Community Action Program (CAP), was the heart of the War on Poverty. It became the most controversial part of the act, because it politicized the poor, creating antagonism between the poor and state and city governments. In February, 1965, for example, the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) funded an experimental political-action-training program, sponsored by Syracuse University, to train political organizers and do fieldwork in slum areas. To Republican Syracuse mayor William F. Walsh, the program looked like a drive to register discontented and mostly Democratic voters. A subcommittee of the U.S. Conference of Mayors complained about the training program, and the Syracuse grant was terminated; the “militants” were instructed to work through the local CAP, called the Crusade for Opportunity Crusade for Opportunity , administered by the mayor’s office.

On the whole, however, CAP embodied the democratic wish for community control over events that directly affected local people, a tradition of local activism and work that fueled many social reform movements in the United States throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the War on Poverty paved the way for greater participation of African Americans in the country’s civic culture. The scope of CAP, nonetheless, remained limited. By the end of 1967, for example, only 41,000 poor people were working in CAP-administered programs, a rather small number compared to the millions of unemployed and underemployed poor persons and the approximately 6 million recipients in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program.


The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 raised the issue of poverty to a level of national concern and so helped pave the way for federal programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, Head Start, and Upward Bound, as well as legal and other comprehensive health services.

The act also established in Washington the idea that ghettos could be transformed into stable, good neighborhoods, and that those most directly affected by antipoverty initiatives should be involved in planning and implementing those initiatives. Community action, originally an idea for delivering services in poor neighborhoods more efficiently and with more sympathy, mutated into the concept of “community development.” The idea of empowering consumers of services became the sine qua non of effective advocacy movements for women’s rights, health care, environmental concerns, and the like. Head Start Head Start , for example, one of the most enduring and popular programs emerging from the War on Poverty, embraces the idea of involving and empowering the parents of poor children. It has become common knowledge that launching a community-based program without the participation of those most directly affected would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. War on Poverty Economic policy;United States Great Society Economic Opportunity Act (1964) Social justice Poverty

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brauer, Carl M. “Kennedy, Johnson, and the War on Poverty.” Journal of American History 69 (June, 1982): 98-119. Argues that presidential initiative, rather than the efforts of intellectuals and journalists bringing attention to poverty as a social problem, accounted for the War on Poverty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Califano, Joseph A., Jr. “What Was Really Great About the Great Society.” Washington Monthly 31 (October, 1999): 13-19. Argues that the War on Poverty was far more successful than implied by the “misguided failure” characterization by later twentieth century political and social critics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Caputo, Richard K. Welfare and Freedom American Style II: The Role of the Federal Government, 1941-1980. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1994. A comprehensive study of factors and forces shaping the development of America’s welfare state in the post-World War II period. Devotes an entire chapter to Johnson’s War on Poverty and Great Society programs. Endnotes, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clark, Robert F. The War on Poverty: History, Selected Programs, and Ongoing Impact. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2002. Concisely describes the origins and programs of the Great Society between 1965 and 2000. Endnotes, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, S. M., and Martin Rein. “Participation, Poverty, and Administration.” Public Administration Review 29 (January, 1969): 15-25. Explores the evolving purposes to which “maximum feasible participation” was put into effect.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moynihan, Daniel Patrick. Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: Community Action in the War on Poverty. New York: Vintage Books, 1970. An early account of the War on Poverty, reflecting the role of social scientists, by one of the program’s architects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murray, Charles. Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980. New York: Basic Books, 1984. Argues that post-World War II social policy in general and the War on Poverty in particular provided disincentives to work and to two-parent family formation among poor people, thereby doing them more harm than good.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Patterson, James T. America’s Struggle Against Poverty in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. A comprehensive study of the evolution of policies and attitudes toward poverty in the twentieth century United States. Argues that while public poverty policies changed, public attitudes toward the poor largely remained the same. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sundquist, James L. Politics and Policy: The Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson Years. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1968. Historical treatment of these three presidential administrations by one of the architects of the War on Poverty, who stressed the cyclical nature of social reform.

6.6 Million Women Enter the U.S. Labor Force

Inflation and Labor Unrest

Employment Act

Firms Begin Replacing Skilled Laborers with Automated Tools

Galbraith Critiques the Creation of a Society of Mass Consumption

United Nations Adopts the Declaration of the Rights of the Child

Head Start Is Established to Aid Poor Children

Johnson Signs the Medicare and Medicaid Amendments

Canada Implements Its National Health Plan

Congress Passes the Consumer Credit Protection Act

Categories: History