War, poverty, and the War on Poverty: 50 years later

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Poverty Bill (also known as the Economic Opportunity Act) on Aug. 20, 1964, while press and supporters of the bill look on. LBJ Library photo by Cecil Stoughton, available via Creative Commons.

Assistant professor of public health policy and administration, Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

On the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty, President Barack Obama announced his Promise Zones Initiative to renew President Lyndon Johnson’s vision of ending poverty in places that Johnson said were on the “outskirts of hope.” Designated Promise Zones would be given priority funding for federal grants programs, technical support for improving intergovernmental and public-private cooperation, and tax incentives for business investments. The inclusion of Los Angeles in the launch of this initiative is symbolic because the city has been the testing ground in fierce debates over federal involvement in the nation’s cities since the War on Poverty experiment was launched.

In the wake of the 2008 economic crisis and Occupy movement, economic inequality is once again on the agenda. How we remember the legacy of these programs, and how they continue to evolve, is part of the contemporary debate over policies that might effectively respond to poverty and deepening inequality. President Ronald Reagan issued one of the most famous rejections of the War on Poverty when he declared in the mid-1980s, “I guess you could say, poverty won the war.” By equating poverty with dependency, the expansion of Great Society programs like Medicare, Head Start, and neighborhood health centers by definition become indicators of poverty rather than programs that work to combat it.

Far from being a failure, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concludes that government programs are responsible for cutting the poverty rate nearly in half. This finding is based on the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, which includes cash income, non-cash benefits, and tax credits (also see this Columbia University study). Without these government programs, 40 million more people would have been living in poverty in 2012 than without government programs. Still, nearly 50 million people were counted as poor in 2012, and there is a tremendous racial gap in poverty rates with the white rate at 14% compared with 25.8% among African Americans, 16.7% among Asian Americans, and 27.8% among Hispanic people. These rates also vary at the regional and urban level. A Public Policy Institute of California study finds that the rate of poverty for Los Angeles County is higher than the statewide average. And within the county, the rate of poverty is more than twice as high in South Los Angeles as compared to West LA, contributing to a mortality rate that is almost twice as high.

Under Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush, rolling back federal programs that created “dependency,” broken families, and a wasteful tax burden amounted to a hands-off agenda for the nation’s cities. But the deeply uneven effects of government abandonment, economic disinvestment, and policing once again erupted in the city. Following the 1992 Rodney King uprising, President Bush responded with the idea of enterprise zones, which would offer tax incentives to attract private investment for job creation, as well as housing investments and crime control money. Incoming President Bill Clinton took up this idea and repackaged it as empowerment zones, a move that reflected both a rejection of “traditional liberal responses” to poverty and an embrace of self-help.

While tapping into the War on Poverty legacy of community-based projects, Obama’s Promise Zones Initiative remixes the Bush and Clinton mantra of public-private partnerships, whose record on poverty is uncertain at best. The $500 million Los Angeles could gain through the Promise Zone Initiative is more than the $137 million in housing moneys Bush promised 20 years ago, but neither of these programs actually represented new funds, and the $500 billion in tax exemptions for Obama’s overall program have not yet been passed by Congress. Moreover, there are concerns that this money might also fuel gentrification in the Pico-Union neighborhood, where people are already being displaced by rising rents.

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin Luther King, Jr.,
in the White House Cabinet Room in March 1966.

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., traveled to Los Angeles after the 1965 Watts riots, the city was at the center of a nationwide debate over the War on Poverty. The issue then concerned how much power poor people would have to shape the programs. King urged that the programs that Mayor Yorty was blocking be immediately rolled out. They were started, but in the coming years King saw the funds for expanding these innovative programs and creating jobs devoted instead to war. In his famous speech, “Beyond Vietnam,” delivered at Riverside Church in 1967, he explained:

I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

King’s diagnosis for the failure of the War on Poverty has largely been missing from the 50th anniversary discussions of how we remember, and continue to debate, its legacy. Unlike Reagan, the dependency that King questioned was the nation’s reliance on war-making, which both drew money away from supporting human needs and distorted national values.

Indeed, peace and justice activists at the time linked the health of their children and communities to a project of transforming the defense economy and reinvesting military dollars in domestic needs. These were not simple trade-offs. Shifting money away from war-making would enable qualitative changes in how we might understand health and security. I found a compelling reconceptualization of health in the papers of Women Strike for Peace at the Southern California Library. Mary Clarke, a longtime peace activist, delivered a speech in the early 1970s:

It was as if some strange madness was in control of man, compelling him on the one hand to build great hospitals for the sick, while at the same time he was spending even more money to build instruments that could make more wounds than all his hospitals could take care of.

Within the context of a war-making society, hospitals can appear as band-aids, institutions whose efforts are outstripped by the deadliness of war-making and military priorities. But Clarke’s thinking also suggests that the closure of safety net hospitals, including King Hospital, is part of the collateral damage of war-making.

Can Dr. King’s and Mary Clarke’s visions guide us to push for more than (broken) promise zones? They embolden us to ask where the money is to fight poverty, and to include military spending as one part of the answer. The $500 million (over 10 years) that Obama proposes pales in comparison to Los Angeles County’s share of defense spending, which the National Priorities Project pegs at $18.28 billion for 2014 alone. That sum would cover the county’s 2013-2014 $7 billion health and sanitation budget, $6 billion public assistance budget, and most of the LA Unified School District’s $7 billion budget. For the past several years, the US Conference of Mayors has passed resolutions calling for the end of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the elimination of nuclear weapons, and reinvestment of defense dollars in creating a “sustainable economy for the 21st century.” These resolutions and the nomination of the National Priorities Project for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize recognize that ending war is linked to ending wars on the poor.

Fulfilling the unfinished peace and justice agenda that we inherit from the 1960s and 1970s is the real promise for creating healthy cities.


Jenna M. Loyd received her PhD in geography from the University of California, Berkeley, and is assistant professor of public health policy and administration at the Joseph J. Zilber School of Public Health at University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. She is author of Health Rights Are Civil Rights: Peace and Justice Activism in Los Angeles, 1963-1978, and coeditor of Beyond Walls and Cages: Prisons, Borders, and Global Crisis.

Health Rights are Civil Rights suggests an entirely new geography of Los Angeles based on both activism and geopolitics. Jenna M. Loyd makes pathbreaking connections between health, war-making, race, and the environment that offer us a new way of viewing midcentury Los Angeles. An essential text for all scholars of Los Angeles, health, race, and activism.”
—Laura Pulido, University of Southern California

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