Stephen Smith: From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, War on Poverty - from The Great Society to The Great Recession. I'm Stephen Smith.
Linda Lighty: Woody, uh uh, take that back and get the purple chair.
Linda Lighty is preparing to move her two kids out of the public housing projects, and to get away from all the crime.
Lighty: We have seen people shoot somebody. They shooting at somebody 'round the corner and come running through this way and hop over the fence. Meanwhile, I'm hollering for all the kids, "Get outta the way. Come on in the house," you know.
The projects where Lighty lives are called Garfield Heights. They're in a poor neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Penn. And sometimes the place feels like the Wild West - or a combat zone.
Lighty: I've seen guns, you know, laying in the grass. It's how they hide 'em. And think kids aren't gonna run around these buildings and see 'em. [Oh gosh] I found one right out back one day. [A gun?] Girl, yeah I had a fit. I called the police, "If ya'll don't get this . . ." He said "What?" - I said "A gun, do I have to spell it to you?"
Linda Lighty and her two kids are moving out with the help of a local church group, and some of the volunteers have come by to talk about the house they're fixing up for her. The church group is renovating an abandoned house, and the volunteers ask 7-year-old Dalaiza and 5-year-old Woody about their decorating schemes.
Volunteer: And what do you have in your room?
Dalaiza: Hannah Montana.
Lighty: And Cinderella.
Volunteer: Hannah Montana and Cinderella? Is that what you want in your new room, too?
Dalaiza: Just Hannah Montana.
Volunteer: Just Hannah Montana, no more Cinderella. Hey Woody, do you still want Spiderman in your room?
Volunteer: Yes? Nice.
Woody: Yes, only Spiderman.
Volunteer: Only Spiderman.
The house they're fixing up is only half a mile away from the projects, but Linda Lighty says the move might as well be to another world. At 50, she's lived in the projects most of her life. Lighty has three grown children and now the two youngsters. Soon she'll be a homeowner. The church group helped her to get an affordable mortgage, to get her finances in order, and to work towards getting a job.
Lighty: Getting my bills back on track, learning how to keep things in order. Even going back to school - for my GED. Things is working out good, just takes one day at a time.
[Music: Outlaw - Bill Frisell - Ghost Town - Nonesuch Records]
Like Linda Lighty, more than 40 million Americans are struggling to get by on public programs, disability checks and private charity. And like Lighty, many were born in poverty - growing up in neighborhoods that offer few clear ways of escaping a life of struggle. Today we have near double digit unemployment in the United States, and the economy is trying to recover from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. It's easy to think that poverty is a problem with no solution - that there've always been poor folks, and there always will be. But there was a time when the nation's political leaders - led by the president - believed they could end poverty. Forever.
President Lyndon Johnson: …this administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. [applause]
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty. It was a massive expansion of a social safety net that was first established during the Great Depression.
Chris Farrell: So back in the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt created big programs like social security, public housing and unemployment insurance. He called it a "new deal" for average Americans who lived on the edge of poverty because of the Great Depression.
Here's Chris Farrell, chief economics correspondent for American Public Media and a columnist at Bloomberg BusinessWeek.
Farrell: Those New Deal programs were aimed mostly at middle-class Americans. Thirty years later, in the mid 1960s, along comes Lyndon Johnson declaring war on poverty. His dream was to give people who'd always been left out of America's prosperity a chance at the kind of education, the jobs, the safe neighborhoods the middle class enjoyed. And Johnson had a name for this vision: he called it the Great Society.
Johnson: The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time. [applause]
Johnson explained his Great Society vision in a 1964 commencement speech at the University of Michigan. He described the work ahead in military terms.
Johnson: Will you join in the battle to build the Great Society, to prove that our material progress is only the foundation on which we will build a richer life of mind and spirit. There are those timid souls that say this battle cannot be won, that we are condemned to a soulless wealth. I do not agree. We have power to shape civilization that we want.
[Music - Stax Jam - Galactic - Coolin' Off - Fog City Records]
President Johnson spent billions of dollars expanding expanded the social safety net, creating new and bigger government programs. Over the coming hour we'll look at what happened to Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. America is still the richest nation on earth, yet poverty remains an abiding problem. Twenty percent of American children are poor. And because of the Great Recession, experts say the poverty rate will go up. So - did we lose the war? To start finding the answer, let's dial back to the 1950s. World War II is just over and much of the country is riding a wave of prosperity.
Newsreel: Flourishing in peace with 67 million people gainfully employed, the most in our history, the United States today represents an achievement in good government, unsurpassed in the history of man. . .
Post-war America is a place of unprecedented abundance. Factory jobs are plentiful, the baby boom is underway. The middle-class appetite for homes, cars and appliances is huge.
Newsreel: ….efforts on farming, industry, in science and business that ensure the great majority a way of life that is physically gratifying and spiritually uplifting.
Maria Cancian: In the late '50s early '60s, about one in five Americans were considered poor. But there were some groups of people that were more likely to be poor.
Maria Cancian is an economist and a social policy expert at the University of Wisconsin. She says the poor included…
Cancian: . . . the elderly, people who lived in families headed by a single mom, people who lived in rural areas, and African Americans. At least one in three of people in those categories were poor - so they were much more likely to be poor than other Americans.
Archival poverty film: What is poverty? It's a way of life that pulls you down to its level. It's like a sewer. When you get right to the bottom and the flood hits, you go right with it.
Prompted by LBJ's declaration of war, American news organizations produced a flurry of in-depth stories and documentaries revealing the landscape of American poverty as if it were a strange, invisible country recently discovered.
Archival clip one: In the big cities poor are still there, a vast silent army of them. Tucked away behind skyscrapers or new apartment buildings, a ring of hopelessness around the big booming busy-ness of the city . . .
Archival clip two: 17.5 million people, one third of all rural families are left behind in an age of technology and industrial progress. Families - some of them large families - make less than $3,000 a year . . .
Archival clip three: Joe Nelson's wife and children have been sharecroppers all their lives, watching half the fruit of their labor go to the landowner. It is an existence. But it's not a living . . .
News: The jobs are bad, the living is bad, the schooling is bad, the future hardly even exists. The poor live in a descending spiral while all around them the economy goes up and up . . .
[Music: Kingdom Come - Norman Edmonds - Classic Mountain Songs - Smithsonian]
At the heart of Lyndon Johnson's anti-poverty campaign is the conviction that poor people would lift themselves up, if given a fair chance. One of Johnson's political heroes is Franklin Roosevelt, and the Great Society is Johnson's way to accomplish the goals set out by FDR's New Deal.
To command the War on Poverty, LBJ selects a man with a military sounding name: Sargent Shriver. Shriver had married into the Kennedy family and created the Peace Corps during President John F. Kennedy's administration. LBJ and Shriver attacked the poverty problem like men of their generation.
Sargent Shriver: He and I had both been in World War II. And the whole population of our age had been in World War II.
This is Sargent Shriver in a 1991 interview.
Shriver: So when you talk about war against poverty, we thought like war against Hitler, an all-out total national effort. So I looked upon poverty as if Eisenhower's invading Europe. When you invade Europe you use ships to land the troops, you use cannons to protect them while they're landing. You have airplanes to fly sorties over them to protect them, you have 50 different types of groups . . . I thought the same way about the war against poverty.
But at first, Sargent Shriver doesn't actually want the job. Johnson's scheme is so huge and so vague. This recording of LBJ's phone call to Shriver demonstrates how hard it is to tell the president no.
Shriver: Good morning Mr. President, how are you?
Johnson: I'm going to announce your appointment at that press conference.
Shriver: What press conference?
Johnson: This afternoon.
Shriver: Well God, I think it would be - advisable if you don't mind, if I can have this weekend I wanted to sit down with a couple of people . . . [fade]
Shriver pleads for time because he doesn't want to go into a press conference without some notion of how to actually lead a war on poverty. So LBJ offers him the presidential retreat in Maryland.
Johnson: Well, just go away and go to Camp David and figure it out.
LBJ believed that American ingenuity is equal to any problem no matter how big. He thinks poverty can be solved by smart people and plenty of money.
Johnson: The sky's the limit, you just make this thing work period and we don't give a damn about the details.
LBJ can say "the sky's the limit" for a particular reason: America is enjoying unprecedented prosperity, and the government has plenty of money to spend. Shriver comes up with a medley of initiatives to solve what he believes are the myriad causes of poverty.
Shriver: Community Action as its name implies is local action. We depend completely on local communities to come to Washington with their own programs of combating poverty . . .
Archival news: One of most successful of these is the home visitation program. One young man, only 19 years old works with high school dropouts and others . . .
Archival news: In the first summer more than a half million children came to Head Start, in Watts and in the hills of Appalachia . . .
Archival news: Lenny and his friends receive $30 a month. They get an additional $50 for every month they spend in the job corps. The Camp Kilmer job corps is one part of the work of the Office of Economic Opportunity…
The Office of Economic Opportunity, Medicaid, Volunteers in Service to America or VISTA - these newly-minted federal programs would become familiar brand names, along with War on Poverty initiatives like food stamps and federal student loans. Lyndon Johnson's campaign played out in every state and on all kinds of terrain, from small towns in the South to urban ghettos in the North. Pittsburgh was one of the first cities to get some of that federal cash.
Moe Coleman: We didn't have much mandate as to how we should put this thing together. This is one of the times where they were looking for ideas from the cities rather than giving cities ideas.
Moe Coleman was a young man working in the mayor's office when he was drafted to help run the new anti-poverty crusade in Pittsburgh. Unlike programs from the past which tended to be top-down, this battle would be directed by residents of the neighborhood serving on the board of directors. Eight of Pittsburgh's most struggling neighborhoods were targeted for anti-poverty help. Coleman and his former colleague Dave Epperson remember…
Coleman: We knew we had to have citizen involvement and we knew we had to have people who were poor involved in decision-making. We knew . . .
Dave Epperson: [It] had to be integrated.
Epperson: It had to be integrated.
Coleman: Had to integrate it.
Epperson: And therefore the first board, the board had 14 people and five of them were African American.
With money from the new Office of Economic Opportunity, Pittsburgh's political establishment helped activists from low-income neighborhoods get government-funded jobs and training. Some drove the bus to Head Start, others clerked in the new Legal Services office. For some poor folks in Pittsburgh, these jobs were a foothold to start their own ascent out of poverty.
Coleman: We brought in to work in these programs community people. Trained them, created a whole new cadre of service delivery people that were really out of the neighborhoods that they served. [That's right]
[Music: Chicken Pox - Booker T and The M.G.'s - Melting Pot - Stax Records]
The mandate from Washington that poor people help make the decisions about social programs in their own neighborhoods was one of the most original and controversial aspects of the War on Poverty. In some cities, the new community action programs pitted militant neighborhood leaders against powerful mayors and city councils.
David Bradley: Many mayors were feeling that the War on Poverty was federally funded revolution against them. And in some cases, they were right.
David Bradley, of the National Community Action Foundation, says the War on Poverty also became a scapegoat for larger social ills.
Bradley: Look at the 1960s, [the] most turbulent decade in American history since the 1860s; a decade of protest, a decade of violence. There were many many strong feelings in the press and among political leaders that somehow Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and the centerpiece of that Great Society - this War on Poverty - somehow they were the wellspring that started a lot of this.
[Music: Runaway Child, Running Wild - The Funk Brothers]
For the most part, civil rights leaders supported the War on Poverty. But many also thought America should do more for its people living at the margins.
Martin Luther King Jr: We aren't merely struggling to integrate a lunch counter now, we're struggling to get some money to be able to buy our hamburger or steak when we get to the counter.
Archival news: Dr. Martin Luther King's massive downtown march is underway, several thousand Negroes are marching toward city hall at this time . . .
Malcolm X: The economic philosophy of black nationalism only means that we should own, operate and control the economy of our community.
Protester: We will not come off of the streets until we can work at a job befitting of our skills in any place in the land.
The same year he signed the Economic Opportunity Act, President Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act which banned racial discrimination in public accommodations like stores, restaurants and schools, in hiring for jobs or in the delivery of government services. Maria Cancian says it's hard to separate achievements made in the War on Poverty from the civil rights movement.
Cancian: There were a number of changes that were made with the idea that, especially African Americans, shouldn't be singled-out and excluded from institutions. They shouldn't be excluded from hospitals, so part of the Medicare reforms involved integrating hospitals, they shouldn't be excluded from public education. And I think that's a victory that came about in large part because of [the] War on Poverty combined with civil rights movement.
Ruth Parson: Poverty and civil rights goes hand in hand; the only way to eradicate poverty is for everyone to be inclusive.
Ruth Parson grew up in Pittsburgh, and at 58 she's one of thousands of local poor people whose lives were changed by the War on Poverty and the civil rights movement. Parson went to college with the help of a federal program launched in 1965 to help poor kids get into higher education.
Parson: I was the first generation ever to go to college in my family. The Upward Bound programs allow poor people an exposure to the colleges.
Ruth Parson's college exposure led to a Ph.D. and a career in social work. Now she's a professional poverty fighter in Pittsburgh.
Parsons: Demetrius, you finished? Come on in here dear heart…
In her office at Pittsburgh Community Services, Parson takes the paperwork from a new client who needs an apartment.
Parson: Where you want to stay?
Client: North Side would probably be easier.
Parson: North Side, OK . . .
Parson has a warm and commanding presence, and most folks call her Dr. Ruth.
Parson: This plan right here is called a family developmental plan. This is a contract that allows you to buy into what me and you are going to do together. [OK] OK? So put your name there and you mom's name there and your daughter's there. Because I'm going to involve them in the program, too.
Demetrius Kenny doesn't have a job. He's busy taking care of his ailing mother and wants to get custody of his five-year-old daughter.
Parson: And our major goal today is to obtain safe and affordable housing.
Actually, housing is just the start of it. Dr. Ruth is like a guide who helps her clients find their way through a forest of public assistance programs. She works her computer keyboard and the telephone simultaneously to hook Demetrius Kenny up with transportation, medical care, job training - even a parenting course.
Parson: Hi there Mr. Lee, Dr. Ruth here. How are you my friend today? Hey Mr. Lee I have a young man that I need your assistance - I want him enrolled in your father's program . . . [fade]
Some of the programs Ruth Parson connects her clients to can be traced back to Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. And in a way, Dr. Ruth is also a legacy of that war. She's a person from the community who got the training and the education to return to her neighborhood and help others.
Parson: I don't make a lot of money, but I sleep well. And everyone comes in my office - they're so sad when they first get there because they have so many problems. And we talk about, you know, as long as you have breath you can have another opportunity to make it right. They leave out more secure that we can do better than we have in the past, than when they came in . . . [fade]
Parson: [fade in] All right? Straight? All right my son.
After about a half hour of questions, forms, phone calls and emails, Dr. Ruth walks Demetrius Kenny to her office door.
Parson: And tell your mom that I said that I want to see her soon. OK? You take care now. Alright dear, when you get rich you owe me lunch.
[Music: DJ Z-Trip - 3rd Gear - Shifting Gears - Hollywood Records]
A few miles away in another inner-city Pittsburgh neighborhood . . . volunteers from a local church group have finished gutting the abandoned house and are hauling in fresh building materials to make it a new home for Linda Lighty.
Michael Stanton: There's a smell that marks the transition of the house, from deconstruction to rehabilitation.
That's group leader Michael Stanton - he lives up the street. The old smell was mildew and dust and rot. The new smell:
Stanton: The smell of new lumber. The smell of drywall. To me it's an exciting smell.
Now this is not a government program. But in a way, this church group continues a mission launched during the War on Poverty. The community action programs that were created in the 1960s by Lyndon Johnson encouraged people in struggling neighborhoods to solve their own problems; government would supply the financial and technical support. Today, many cities have public-private community development corporations, and some of the money to buy a house for Linda Lighty came from one of those in Pittsburgh. The muscle power and the sweat came from Linda's neighbors.
Stanton: This is about community, this is about longevity. So we want to make sure that what we put Miss Lighty into is something that she's able to manage and succeed at. We want her to be a successful homeowner.
[Music: Beyond the Beyond - RJD2 - Third Hand - XL Recordings]
In the second part of the program we'll check back in with Lindy Lighty as she hopes to move from dependence on the social safety net to becoming a homeowner and a breadwinner. We'll also travel from the inner city to the rural South, where the War on Poverty saved untold numbers from squalor and despair. But where the fight is far from over.
Victor Zachary: It was good when it started out, and a lot of people, they needed the help but they became dependent on that assistance because it was more profitable not to work sometimes here in the Delta than to work for a little bit of nothing.
This is Stephen Smith. You're listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, War on Poverty: from The Great Society to The Great Recession. You can find out more about this story on our website, where we have an interactive representation of the War on Poverty. You can also sign up for our podcast there, at americanradioworks.org. Support for this program comes from the Northwest Area Foundation Fund of the Minneapolis Foundation. American RadioWorks is supported by the Batten Institute, the research center for global entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business. Batteninstitute.org. Our program continues after a short break, from American Public Media
From American Public Media, this is an American RadioWorks documentary, War on Poverty: from The Great Society to The Great Recession. I'm Stephen Smith.
Sonny Payne: Ladies and gentlemen, Robert Jr. Lockwood and the King Biscuit Entertainers.
[Music: The Goat - Sonny Boy Williamson - This is My Story - Chess Records]
For some seventy years, King Biscuit Time has been belting out the blues from a radio station in the Mississippi River Delta. The show was started by legendary harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson in 1941 to help sell King Biscuit Flour.
Payne: And a very pleasant afternoon everyone and welcome to program number 19,559 of the original King Biscuit Time program …
Today, King Biscuit Time is hosted by 85-year-old Sonny "Sunshine" Payne. He broadcasts from the Delta Cultural Center in Helena, Ark., on the banks of the Mississippi. On the walls around Sonny Payne are photos and artifacts of what the Delta used to be: a vast landscape of cotton plantations where first slavery - and later sharecropping - meant hard work and hardship.
Payne: A lot of people don't know what blues is. They have no earthly idea, they think it's music. No, it's about culture. It's about the Afro-American people. They'd work on these plantations, they'd get frustrated. White man doesn't want to listen to you - you sing about it; [they] call it Delta blues.
[Music: Monroe - Further East/Further West - Nonesuch Records]
The blues grew up out of the rich delta soil and the poor living conditions for the black and white laborers who worked the land. In the 1960s, the persistence of punishing deprivation in the rural South helped fuel Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. Out in the Southern countryside, people still lived in shacks, some without electricity or indoor plumbing. Federal anti-poverty programs helped improve living conditions, but in many places government help wasn't enough.
Victor Zachary: Here you go.
Stephen Smith: You want to sit here?
Zachary: That's fine with me. Here you go, man.
Smith: So, tell me your name and where we are.
Zachary: My name is Victor Zachary, and we're in the Arkansas Mississippi Delta, in the little town called Marvell, Ark., in a community we call Santuck.
Zachary: San-tuck. T-U-C-K.
Smith: Well where does that name come from?
Zachary: Because the soil is very sandy around here, and people used to get stuck a lot a long time ago so they called it Santuck.
Victor Zachary's house sits at a crossroads in Santuck. The flat delta farmland stretches to the horizon and a lusty breeze blows through the trees in the front yard. Down the road a bit there's a cluster of houses where farmhands and their families used to live. People still live there, but Zachary says most of them don't have jobs.
Zachary: This is cotton country: cotton is king. And now since the mechanization period has come along, there are a lot of people now out of work.
Before World War II, cotton in the delta was cultivated and picked by hand on a patchwork of small farms. But then came tractors, planters and harvesters.
Zachary: A lot of the farmers here now are mega-farmers. And a lot of the little small farmers don't have work anymore. And a lot of the people that used to work on the farm, they don't have the jobs to do anymore because the equipment is so large.
Victor Zachary's family goes back a long way in the delta - back to slavery times. Sometime along the way, perhaps after emancipation, his ancestors got their own land. Zachary steps off the porch to point out some of the 600 acres his family still owns.
Zachary: We used to have 11 houses on our farm for our farm hands.
Smith: So this is your land back around in here as well?
Zachary: Yes this is my land, this is where I normally would grow peas all the way back there. That trailer - we pick that trailer full of peas, sometimes twice [wow] in a day.
At 58 years old Victor Zachary is one of the few African-American farmers left around here. He leases out most of his land. He can't farm too much himself because he's disabled from a car accident some years back. But he does grow the peas on a section of his land. Zachary hires local kids to help him in the pea patch.
Zachary: They don't have any work ethic any more, and this gives them a little work ethic.
Zachary blames welfare for eroding the work ethic that he grew up with on the farm. He says the War on Poverty was needed because people really were poor in the Marvell area back in the 50's and 60's.
Zachary: It was good when it started out, and a lot of people needed the help, they needed the assistance. But we [be]came dependent upon that assistance . . . Because, it was more profitable not to work sometimes here in the delta than to work for little bit of nothing.
It's not like he can offer big wages himself, but Victor Zachary thinks pea picking at least provides some jobs where there aren't many. And in these tough economic times, even Zachary's looking for a little government support to help his vegetable business grow.
[Music: Terrible Thing - Booker T. and the MG's - Stax Sound]
Back in the 1960s, as the farm jobs dried up in the Arkansas Delta, folks moved away in search of work. Families moved across the Mississippi to cities like Memphis or Atlanta, or headed north to industrial cities like Pittsburgh, Chicago and Detroit. But Annie Huff's family stayed around Marvell. Her father ran an illegal gambling house in town. Her mother raised eight children on about $200 a month.
Annie Huff: She received welfare and she had to go to the welfare office. And I would accompany her - well we would probably all accompany her. They asked every question under the sun for her to get food stamps and this money that she was getting, and they treated her like a dog. And that was when I decided I was going to college because I said I would never be treated like this.
But Annie Huff's escape plan hit a snag. She fell for a boy and had a baby at age 16. Still, she stayed in high school and would go on to college.
Huff: And my mom made sure that I took on the responsibility of that child. I would go to school during the day - she would keep the child during the day. And when I came home in the evening, I would have to wash diapers - there was no Pampers - nothing like that. Then I had to do my homework. And I graduated number three in my class and went on to college because I still had to go to college; I still had to do what I needed to do.
Looking back, Huff says she couldn't have done it without the War on Poverty programs launched by President Lyndon Johnson. A government scholarship paid for college, a government check helped feed her son.
Huff: I became a welfare recipient as well, which hurt me to the core because of what I had seen my mother go through. And I used that as a support to help me get to meet my goals. Because I had laid out goals to meet myself, and I didn't want to be a part of the system but I didn't have a choice. So I ended up a welfare mom, just like my mom was.
[Music: Rise - Herb Alpert - Rise - A&M]
Annie Huff went to college in 1979, and eventually to grad school. The War on Poverty that President Johnson had declared 15 years earlier was already long over. Some of LBJ's anti-poverty programs had become reliable strands in America's social safety net. But the grand goal of eliminating poverty altogether? That only lasted a few years.
David Bradley: When Johnson declared the war on poverty people assumed that war means victory.
This is David Bradley, a veteran anti-poverty advocate in Washington.
Bradley: Even if the poverty numbers are dropping dramatically, which they were, we still had poor people. Leading people to believe that the effort was doomed or likely to end up in failure.
There were other problems, too. Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War swallowed up money he wanted to spend on Great Society social programs. The growing anti-war protests, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr, urban riots - it all led to a sense that the country was in turmoil. Johnson decided not to run for reelection. And meanwhile, the 1968 Republican candidate for president - Richard Nixon - blamed the social mayhem on the Great Society.
Richard Nixon: For the past five years we have been deluged by government programs for the unemployed, programs for the cities, programs for the poor. And we have reaped from these programs an ugly harvest of frustration, violence and failure across the land. And now our opponents will be offering more of the same; more billions for government jobs, government housing, government welfare. I say it's time to quit pouring billions of dollars into programs that have failed in the United States . . . [applause]
Nixon hated welfare. And as president, he quickly dismantled LBJ's Office of Economic Opportunity. Over time he cut back other programs as well.
Nixon: Listen to this - "Government must learn to take less from people so people can do more for themselves."
Chuck Colson: Oh, magnificent!
This is Richard Nixon in a recorded phone call with White House aide Chuck Colson. President Nixon rehearsed what would become his 1973 State of the Union speech.
Nixon: "Let each of us remember that America was built not by government but by people, not by welfare but by work, not by shirking responsibility but seeking responsibility."
Chris Farrell: So when Nixon took office, he helped provoke a fundamental shift in how America dealt with the poor.
Here's Chris Farrell, chief economics correspondent for American Public Media and a columnist at Bloomberg BusinessWeek.
Farrell: After 40 years of Democrats in power and New Deal government programs, the Republicans began to take over. The economy was stalled - a terrible recession -and a lot of working people were struggling. And they began to resent War on Poverty programs as handouts to the poor. So big changes were brewing in welfare and safety net policies.
Maria Cancian: After 1973 we really stopped seeing the kind of level of economic growth that we had had before that, and we stopped seeing progress on poverty.
Economist Maria Cancian says the globalizing economy drove down American factory wages. Many families began needing two incomes to stay in the middle class.
Cancian: In the mid-1960s, we thought the right thing for women to do was to stay home and take care of their children. What happened was we changed our attitudes about whether women had a right or a responsibility to stay home with their kids.
So from the late '70s on, political support for the welfare system waned as middle class women went to work and the nation expected poor women to do the same. Republican Ronald Reagan invoked the image of welfare queens who exploited the system to get rich. He blamed welfare for keeping people in poverty.
President Ronald Reagan: With our economic success of the 1980s, the poverty rate has again begun to shrink. But the problem of welfare dependency remains. No one doubts that welfare programs were designed with the best of intentions, but neither can anyone doubt that they've failed - failed to boost people out of dependency.
Farrell: Here's where the big shift in welfare policy really begins to take hold. The government solution to poverty became less about paying moms to stay at home and raise their kids, and more about getting those moms to work. This change from welfare to workfare started under Nixon, was pushed forward by Reagan, and really took hold under a Democratic president: Bill Clinton.
President Bill Clinton: When I ran for president four years ago, I pledged to end welfare as we know it.
In 1996 there was a bipartisan consensus for change. Bill Clinton's welfare reform aimed to move most recipients into paying jobs within five years. It also made states, instead of the federal government, primarily responsible for poor people.
Clinton: We have got to be willing to experiment to try to work to find ways to break the cycle of dependency that keeps dragging folks down. And I think the states are going to find out pretty quickly that they're going to have to be willing to invest something in these people to make sure that they can go to work in the ways that I suggested. Yeah, one last question, yes sir . . .
MUSIC DELTA BLUES
[Music: Trouble in Mind - Big Walter "Shakey" Horton - Big Walter Horton with Carey Bell - Alligator Records]
Before running for president, Clinton had been governor of Arkansas. So his ideas about welfare had already taken hold in the Arkansas Delta. Gov. Clinton had imposed strict conditions on who could get welfare - and work was the key requirement. In the small delta town of Marvell, Ark., Clinton-era work-readiness programs are still in force.
Woman: Yes I did. Do I need to demonstrate? Because Mr. Marvin did teach us how to cut and paste, and that I did not know.
At a local community center, two young mothers labor over their computer keyboards. Center director Beatrice Shelby says they're learning how to use Microsoft Office.
Beatrice Shelby: The reason we have the computer lab is because we believe that nowadays, that a person - in order to be successful in business - needs to learn how to use the computers.
Beatrice Shelby is the long-time director of the Boys Girls Adults Community Development Center in Marvell. The center is a sprawling pink cinderblock building that used to be a sock factory. Besides the computer lab, the center runs a part-time health clinic, an after-school program, a summer camp, a public housing agency, parenting classes, and even a restaurant.
Smith: Well what are my options?
Cook: White beans, brown beans, creamed potatoes . . .
A lunch plate of fried chicken or fish costs about $5.50, and you can watch the TV game shows as you eat. The community development center is the third largest employer in the Marvell area, population three-thousand.
Shelby: With this organization, we do not only provide service to others, we provide service to ourselves. Because these are our family - our cousins, sisters, brothers, nephews, nieces. So we in reality are trying to provide service to ourselves.
Downtown Marvell, Ark., is a two-block strip of weathered storefronts - a lot of them empty. Most people around here depend on government assistance: either social security or Transitional Employment Assistance, the state program that replaced welfare. More than 40 percent get food stamps and 73 percent of the children live in single-parent homes. By most measures Marvell is one of the poorest places in the United States. After getting her master's degree, Annie Huff moved back to Marvell. She works for the University of Arkansas's school of public health representing the needs of rural communities. Huff raised three children in this small delta town. But none of her kids live in Marvell. There just aren't any jobs.
Huff: My daughter, she's in school now. What is she going to do when she gets that engineering degree? What is she going to do here? Unless things change, she's going to have to go some place else. It's a terrible dilemma.
Smith: Well you can't sustain a community on -
Huff: On grant funds.
Smith: On social services.
Huff: That's right! There has to be some income-generating venue. There has to be some way or somehow that there's some capacity developed where people can sustain things themselves. And then we talk about drugs and alcohol. Yeah! People are going to take drugs, they're going to drink because they see no solution. They see a hopeless situation.
A lot of people in Marvell told us illegal drugs are easy to find. And dealing drugs is one way to make a living.
Farrell: The problem for poor and working class people in places like Marvell, Ark., and anywhere else for that matter, is how fundamentally the economy has changed.
Again, here's economics editor Chris Farrell.
Farrell: In a lot of small rural towns, the only jobs left are working for the local government, the schools, providing community services. Yet modern welfare programs limit how long you can get the support. They also expect you to go out and get a job. So if there's no work in the town you live in, you either sink deeper into poverty, or you move on. Or you turn to the underground economy.
Shelby: And this building right here to my left used to be the bank of Marvell, that pretty building with the pretty windows on it.
Just about every day, Beatrice Shelby, the director of the community development center, walks along a paved trail that used to be the railroad tracks.
Shelby: And years ago we had a Sears and Roebuck, and we had two drugstores downtown. Now we only have one drugstore over there, but we used to have two drugstores downtown . . .
The trail passes through downtown Marvell, past an old cotton gin and out to the edge of town. Like a lot of folks in rural America, Shelby is hoping that some kind of new industry may come along - maybe something related to the internet - to replace all the farm jobs that were lost in the past 50 years.
Shelby: I think families will probably start moving back this way as folks figure out a way to make living with technology and things like that. People's might even come back this way.
Just off Main Street there's a one-hoop basketball court. Ms. Shelby stops to watch the young men play. After 28 years as director of the community development center, she's a local matriarch. She's spent years working to get young people educated and out in the world. And she knows too well how hard it is to move from welfare to work - as today's government programs demand - if there is no work to be had.
Shelby: So some how we're going to have to create some jobs and a way [for them to] make a living.
Smith: Or is it also possible that Marvell will just sort of . . .
Smith: . . . Age out of existence?
Shelby: Oh no, that's not even a possibility. That's not a possibility. I just don't believe that. And I think that we have people here that have vision, so we're going to keep trying. I don't see Marvell not existing the next 50 years. I don't think there's a possibility that that will happen.
[Music: Slow Blues - Jimi Hendrix - The Jimi Hendrix Experience (box set) - Legacy Recordings]
In the course of this program we've been to Marvell, Ark., and to Pittsburgh Penn. The rural South, the industrial North: both battlegrounds in the War on Poverty that Lyndon Johnson launched more than four decades ago. We've travelled the timeline from LBJ's Great Society to the Great Recession of recent years. Some experts say that the depth of poverty is not so severe as it used to be; people aren't as hungry, they're not as sick, thanks to the safety net programs that are still in place. But given LBJ's ambition to end poverty altogether, it's tempting to think America lost the war that LBJ declared back in 1964.
Bradley: We're always going to have people who for whatever reason are in poverty.
Again, here's anti-poverty advocate David Bradley of the National Community Action Foundation.
Bradley: But, we don't have to have, and should not have and should never feel comfortable with the fact that one out of four children are in poverty. That we have tens of millions of people that need heating assistance or some of these other programs. We can make a big big difference in improving the quality of their lives better and move a considerable number of people out of poverty or give them the opportunity to move out of poverty. But will America ever be a society in which no one is poor? No.
Here's the lesson that Harvard social policy scholar Christopher Jencks takes from the past four decades.
Christopher Jencks: A lot of what the government did actually achieved what it was intended to achieve, and a lot of the things that failed we shut down. I don't think it's such a bad record.
Jencks says the success side of the record includes food stamps, Medicaid, Head Start; lasting programs that are the foundations of today's safety net, especially in a jobless recovery that's followed the Great Recession.
Jencks: I mean if you say "what's happening to poverty now?" It's going up because people are out of work, and so for the next few years - and I think it's really going to be a number of years - the biggest thing we've got to worry about is just creating employment. Then you've got to think about jobs that pay enough to support a family, too. But right now, any jobs would be a big improvement over none.
Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty when America's economy was growing fast and there were more jobs for unskilled workers. Men still supported families and women still stayed home with the children. Economist Maria Cancian says now everyone is expected to earn their keep, and there aren't enough jobs to go around.
Cancian: I see us as having changed, if you will, our social contract. We have said I think very clearly as a nation that we expect even moms who are raising kids on their own, to get up every day and go to work and earn a living. And not to rely on government benefits, or at least not to rely on a welfare check, we have a lot of other government supports that are available. And I don't see us going back on that.
The face of modern American poverty is now largely a woman's face or a child's face. Forty percent of American children are born to single mothers, and most of them are poor. In the modern welfare system, Cancian says the people with the most challenges have the fewest resources.
Cancian: We put them in a position where we expect them to work in jobs that often don't have sick days, that usually don't have anything like a personal day, that don't have job flexibility - and we've asked them to somehow figure out how to work in those jobs fulltime and still do all the things they need to do for their kids without being able to do any of the short-cuts that middle and upper-middle class families can take whether it's eating out, or having a reliable car to get the kids from here to there, or paying for an after-school program. So we want them to manage all those things without any of those extras, and without the kind of employment benefits that most professional people have. It's just not sustainable. It's not possible.
[Music: High Lights - RJD2 - Magnificent City Instrumentals - Decon]
Back in Pittsburgh, Penn., Linda Lighty is trying to get herself ready for the job market. Lighty is the mother of five we met in the first part of this program. Her housing project is getting torn down and she wants a home of her own. She gets by on a disability check, but she's studying for her GED and hopes one day to find a job. Most of her life, Lighty's been doing what the people around her did: collecting welfare and raising kids. Growing up poor meant staying poor.
Lighty: I felt there was a lot of things we wasn't told back then - I don't fault my mother - but we was only in one circle - we were scared to step out of that one circle.
With the help of the local church group, Lighty is stepping out of the circle now. She got a low-interest, government-backed mortgage through a community development corporation. Michael Stanton is leading the effort to fix up Linda's new house and get her moved in. He lives up the street. Stanton says one less abandoned house will help stabilize the neighborhood while giving Linda a foundation for a better life.
Stanton: So that Linda Lighty isn't just a homeowner but she is a homeowner who is building equity, and that's empowering.
Woody: You going to paint the windows?
Stanton: Am I going to paint the windows? [Yeah] Probably wouldn't be a good idea, you couldn't see outside.
The volunteers almost have the house ready for Lighty and her kids to move in. Call it the new War on Poverty - an army of volunteers, connected by churches, community groups, government programs, and the economic interests of their neighborhood.
Lighty: Mike's been like a soldier standing beside me.
Linda has relied on Michael Stanton for a lot of things: from getting her credit rating in shape, to choosing paint colors.
Lighty: In the projects your walls is white. So you -
Smith: You can have any color you want as long as it's white.
Lighty: Right. So when I got here, I'm like, "Colors? Just leave it white, you can match anything with that color!"
After consulting with Mike and Mike's wife, Lighty picked purple for her daughter Dalaiza's room, blue for her son Woody, and harvest gold for the kitchen. Lighty also wants to build the kids a playhouse out back.
Lighty: I don't know if this is all mine, all my land . . .
The house sits up on a hill and the backyard is a deep lot with towering trees. After the bleak landscape of the public housing projects, it seems perfect for Linda's kids to explore and play in. But she's a little apprehensive about the foliage.
Lighty: Big scary tree. I don't like trees too much.
Smith: Really? That's a big old maple tree.
Lighty: Yeah, but what if it lightnings? Boof!
Smith: So you're concerned about the trees getting hit by lightning. [mm-hmm] Have you ever been near a tree hit by lightning?
Lighty: No but I've heard it gets struck.
Lighty: Yeah. Too many trees for me. If they trim them down I'll be OK.
Smith: Alright. It's too leafy around here.
Linda won't be overcoming her fears alone. Michael Stanton and the church group will offer ongoing support. And Linda will own a piece of property that she and her kids can build a life on.
[Music: Get Behind the Mule - Booker T. - The Potato Hole - Anti]
Nearly half a century after President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty, the struggle continues on many different battlegrounds.
Before the 1960s, the poverty rate was above 20 percent. Now it's about 14 percent. No single program can take credit for that reduction. But the War on Poverty and the New Deal programs that came before it helped millions of Americans move up to a better life.
President Barack Obama: When the markets crashed during the Depression and people lost their life savings, our government put in place a set of rules and safeguards to make sure that such a crisis never happened again, and then put a safety net in place to make sure that our elders would never be impoverished the way they had been.
Last spring, President Barack Obama continued a tradition of presidential speech-making to the graduating class at the University of Michigan.
Obama: Democrat Lyndon Johnson announced the Great Society during a commencement here at Michigan, but it was the Republican president before him, Dwight Eisenhower, who launched the massive government undertaking known as the interstate highway system.
President Obama made the point that both political parties have used the power of the federal government to tackle issues of major national concern. Obama's own anti-poverty policy has been to increase government supports for poor people, especially the working poor, and to emphasize the importance of education in the modern job market. But conservative pressure against big government and shrinking revenues because of the Great Recession have limited his anti-poverty ambitions. Obama asked the students at Michigan to trust him and Congress to find a way out of the economic downturn, and to help find solutions.
Obama: If electoral politics isn't your thing, continue the tradition so many of you started here at Michigan and find a way to serve your community and your country - an act that will help you stay connected to your fellow citizens and improve the lives of those around you.
[Music: Get Behind the Mule - Booker T. - The Potato Hole - Anti]
New research shows that Americans are heeding the call to participate. Since the Great Recession, citizens have rallied to volunteer at their churches and for anti-poverty non-profit groups. It's what President Obama calls community participation and what the first President Bush called "a thousand points of light" - neighbors rallying in creative ways to rescue their communities. In the near-term, that means progress against poverty is likely to be small and local.
America's social safety net is constantly changing size and shape. Some say it's far too small and frayed for this, the richest nation on Earth. Others say the safety net causes poor people to depend on government too much. But more than 40 million poor Americans are glad it's still holding.
[Music - Stax Jam - Galactic - Coolin' Off - Fog City Records]
This is Stephen Smith. You've been listening to an American RadioWorks documentary, War on Poverty: from The Great Society to The Great Recession. It was produced by Laurie Stern, with help from Chris Farrell and me. Editing by Emily Hanford. The American RadioWorks team includes Ellen Guettler, Ochen Kaylan, Frankie Barnhill, Craig Thorson and Judy McAlpine. Special thanks to Suzanne Pekow.
We have a detailed and engaging account of the War on Poverty at our website, americanradioworks.org. You can see Lyndon Johnson's anti-poverty programs mapped out and explained. Chris Farrell has an essay about how the way we think about poverty has changed in this last half century. You can also find our many other documentaries about social and economic issues and sign up for our podcast at americanradioworks.org.
Support for this program comes from the Northwest Area Foundation Fund of the Minneapolis Foundation. American RadioWorks is supported by the Batten Institute. The research center for global entrepreneurship and innovation at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business. Batteninstitute.org.
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